I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 40 together. Negotiations on the EU-UK future relationship have entered an even more intensive phase since 21 October, with negotiating teams working daily to close the gaps between the two sides. Due to a member of one of the negotiating teams falling ill with Covid-19, talks at chief negotiator level were temporarily suspended late last week. The talks have now resumed and the negotiating teams are continuing their work online.
A brief update on Brexit was provided by President von der Leyen at a videoconference of EU leaders on 19 November. On 20 November, she noted that recent days had seen movement on some of the key areas, including that of state aid, although further work remains to close the remaining gaps. That is now the focus of the negotiating teams.
The Deputies will appreciate that this process has reached a particularly sensitive point. It is clear that unlocking a deal will only be possible if appropriate arrangements are found with regard to the key issues of the level playing field for open and fair competition, governance and fisheries, a key national interest for Ireland.
In intensifying the negotiations in October, both sides agreed that regardless of progress in individual workstreams, nothing is agreed until an overall agreement is reached. Nevertheless, we understand that progress has been made in recent weeks in a range of other areas of importance to Ireland, including connectivity and police and judicial co-operation.
Any deal must involve compromises on all sides but a deal cannot come at any price. The EU cannot accept proposals that impact on the integrity of the Single Market or damage the long-term political and economic interests of the Union. We recognise that the UK also has its red lines. The work of the negotiators is to find a set of arrangements that respects both EU and UK values and interests and which gives us a strong and sustainable framework for the vital co-operation between us in the future.
Michel Barnier has our full support, and the support of the entire EU 27, at this crucial moment in the negotiating process. As the EU’s chief negotiator, he has been central to the united and cohesive approach of the EU 27 throughout the Brexit process, including during its most critical moments. The universal confidence and respect he inspires in EU capitals is testament to his efforts.
My colleagues in government and I have remained in close contact with our European counterparts over recent times. I acknowledge the absolute and unflagging support and solidarity our EU partners have demonstrated throughout the Brexit process. They have always recognised the unique ways in which Ireland, North and South, is affected by Brexit. This concern has expressed itself through the EU mandate and draft legal text and through the words and actions of our partners. I have no doubt that we will continue to enjoy their solidarity.
Irrespective of the outcome of the ongoing negotiations, the end of the transition period will bring substantial and lasting change. This means that business and citizens must take action now to be ready for 1 January. I particularly emphasise that, with or without a trade deal, any business that moves goods from, to or through Great Britain will be subject to a range of customs formalities, sanitary and phytosanitary checks and other regulatory requirements that do not apply to such trade today.
I also take this opportunity to remind the House that, regardless of the outcome of the talks, the full, effective and timely implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol, remains vital and that this is an internationally binding legal obligation on both sides. The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is explicitly designed to operate regardless of whether an EU-UK future relationship agreement is in place. I look forward to updating the House further as developments in the negotiations arise.
There are certain things we cannot say right now. The negotiations are difficult at the moment but we are hopeful they can have a positive outcome.