A Northern Ireland Protocol deal is “within reach”, the president of the European Commission said on Thursday.
Ursula von der Leyen warned that Irish Sea border checks on British goods could not all be ditched because of Brexit and that the agreement would have to protect the EU’s Single Market.
But she promised Brussels would approach Protocol negotiations with “common sense” and focus on issues that mattered to Northern Irish businesses and society.
“I think if both sides are sensitive to this careful balance, a workable solution is within reach. I believe we have a duty to find it,” Mrs von der Leyen told a joint sitting of both houses of the Irish parliament.
She praised Rishi Sunak’s “new, pragmatic spirit” during a speech in Dublin to mark 50 years of Irish EU membership.
“My contacts with Prime Minister Sunak are encouraging and I trust we can find the way,” she said, as she vowed to negotiate “with an honest heart and an open mind”.
“The European Union and the United Kingdom are still members of the same extended family, even if we no longer live in the same house,” she added.
Mrs von der Leyen said the EU showed “ironclad solidarity” with Ireland after Brexit, which had “thrust” the Irish and the bloc “closer together”.
“There can be no hard border on the island,” she said, as she declared that Brexit would not be “an obstacle on the path to reconciliation”.
Micheál Martin, the Irish prime minister, called for a “new and vital partnership” with the UK. He said with the “right political will” the UK and EU could resolve the Protocol issues.
Northern Ireland continues to follow hundreds of EU rules under the Protocol, which introduced the Irish Sea border checks to prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland.
UK-EU negotiations to cut the checks are yet to restart in earnest and have an April deadline of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement for a deal.