British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen will meet in the UK on Monday to discuss changes to the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, they said in a joint statement, raising hopes a deal can be reached.
The planned meeting follows months of intensive negotiations over the protocol -- which governs trade in the British province -- signed between London and Brussels as part of the UK's Brexit divorce from the European Union.
The protocol has kept Northern Ireland in the European single market, to the dissatisfaction of the province's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Sunak and von der Leyen "agreed to continue their work in person towards shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland", said the statement issued on Sunday.
Commission President von der Leyen "will therefore meet with the Prime Minister in the UK tomorrow (Monday)," it added.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar welcomed news of the meeting.
“I was in contact with President von der Leyen today and very much welcome news of a meeting... between von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak tomorrow," he wrote on Twitter.
"We should acknowledge the level of engagement between the UK gov, the European Commission and the NI parties in recent months" he added.
As speculation mounted on Saturday that a deal was imminent, the Irish taoiseach said he believed a deal was close.
"Certainly the deal isn’t done yet,” Varadkar told broadcaster RTE. "But I do think we are inching towards conclusion."
Von der Leyen had been expected to travel to Britain on Saturday and was to meet King Charles III.
- Fraying of bonds -
UK government sources, however, confirmed to the PA news agency that von der Leyen’s trip was called off.
Any revision of the protocol will have to reassure both the DUP and some sections of Sunak's Conservative Party which fear a fraying of bonds with the rest of Britain.
Disagreements over the protocol have stopped the functioning of the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Opponents are especially vigilant against any changes that would see EU single market laws continue to apply in Northern Ireland, even if lighter-touch rules favoured by both sides were introduced.
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February last year because of the walk-out by the DUP.
It had been due to share power with pro-Ireland Sinn Fein, which became the biggest party in the assembly after the elections last May.
But the DUP collapsed the power-sharing executive because of its opposition to the protocol.
The DUP has always said it wants the protocol overhauled or scrapped entirely, arguing it casts Northern Ireland adrift from the rest of the UK and makes a united Ireland more likely.
© Agence France-Presse
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