The Northern Ireland Protocol will need to be renegotiated in the future even if a new Brexit deal is struck in the coming weeks, government insiders have said.
Lord David Frost was in Brussels on Friday to open a period of intensive negotiations over the post-Brexit arrangements to solve trade disruption and political tension caused by the protocol.
British negotiators believe the Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland will require more changes in the future, because of the ever-changing political landscape in the province and technological developments which could further reduce customs controls.
“The very fact that the protocol has a consent mechanism in it for four years’ time, showed we recognised that it might be necessary to renew or otherwise consent for these arrangements,” the Brexit minister told the Politico news website before the talks.
“In that sense, they have always been a little bit provisional and open to review.”
EU sources fear that any deal will be banked by UK demands for fresh negotiations over the future of the protocol, which the Government claims has had a chilling effect on trade in Northern Ireland.
An EU diplomat said: “Frost has two more years in this position so nobody believes that this is the last week, even if we give them everything. He’ll come back and ask for more.
“They need Brexit to still be alive and would say they’d rather have it alive than buried for electoral reasons.”
Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s lead negotiator and a Commission vice-president, is less concerned about the prospect of future renegotiations over the protocol.
He is confident subsequent talks will be held in a much more positive atmosphere, according to a source close to the Commission vice-president.
Lord Frost is seeking to limit the powers of EU judges in Northern Ireland to simplify future renegotiations over the protocol.
The European Court of Justice currently polices the Brexit arrangements, which means the province follows some 300 EU rules to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Lord Frost believes the European Commission currently has too much power under the current deal, and instead wants disputes and renegotiations to be overseen by a panel of international arbiters.
A senior British source said this would mean future discussions would be “less combative”, because Brussels would not be in the driving seat of the negotiations.
The source said: “If you try and nail down rules for all time, it does not work.
“It needs tinkering with and we need tinkerable arrangements, rather than confrontational.”
During their two-hour discussion, Lord Frost reminded Mr Sefcovic that both sides should begin preparing to seek democratic consent in the province for the arrangements in 2024.
Arriving at the Commission’s Berlaymont headquarters for lunchtime talks with Mr Sefcovic, the Brexit minister praised his “considerable effort” to propose changes to the protocol that dramatically slash customs and food safety checks in Northern Ireland.
But Lord Frost warned Brussels would only agree to a deal if a compromise can be reached over the role of the ECJ, which the bloc has insisted is not up for negotiation.
“The governance arrangements don’t work. We need to take the court out of the system as it is now and we need to find a better way forward,” he told reporters.
Earlier this week, the EU proposed changes to the protocol that would remove up to 80 per cent of checks on food and half customs paperwork for products entering Northern Ireland.
Lord Frost added: “The EU has definitely made an effort in pushing beyond where they typically go in these areas .
"We’re quite encouraged by that, but obviously there is still quite a big gap and that’s what we’ve got to work through.”