Brussels has signalled it could back down and avert a trade war with the UK as on Friday it welcomed the Government’s request for a three-month extension for British sausages to be sold in Northern Ireland.
Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice president, told an audience in Bruges that he was "convinced there is still a window for productive political dialogue" before the ban on chilled meats comes into effect in July.
His comments came 24 hours after it was confirmed that Lord Frost, the Brexit minister, had formally requested that the EU agree to extend the grace period to allow the trade to continue until Sept 30.
Separately, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said he would be "urging" the EU to "respond with generosity" to the UK’s request for a three-month extension.
Products such as British mince and sausages are currently due to be barred from entering the province, which under the Northern Ireland Protocol follows EU health and safety rules.
Brexit sausage war explained
The request has lifted hopes that the two sides could reach a compromise, rather than the UK risking trade retaliation by unilaterally acting again, as it did earlier this year on supermarkets and parcels.
Speaking at the College of Europe, Mr Sefcovic said he was heartened that the UK would "reach out to us on chilled meats”, adding that there needed to be a “genuine determination” to make the Northern Ireland Protocol work rather than “looking for ways to undermine it”.
"There must be an end to damaging unilateral action, in favour of joint action through joint bodies,” he continued.
"I welcome that the UK is recognising the value of this approach on one of the outstanding issues – the supply of chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – because what the protocol truly embodies is trust. It marks the first time that the EU has entrusted the control of its economic border to an outside partner.
"I am convinced that there is still a window for productive political dialogue and positive results, particularly in light of the UK reaching out to us on chilled meats. And therefore, I trust that our UK counterparts will make use of this window with vigour and perseverance."
He also cited Margaret Thatcher, who delivered her famous Bruges speech at the College in 1988, adding: “I remember that even though it was a clearly anti-federalist speech … she stressed the imperative of ‘standing together’ as well ‘understanding each other better.’”
“I believe we cannot afford to spend any more time fighting a supposed zero-sum game.”
His intervention suggests the EU is likely to look favourably on the request, although it is likely to demand further concessions from the UK in return for granting it.
One potential compromise is said to be marking all British products destined for Northern Ireland with labelling making clear they cannot be sold outside of the UK.
Mr Sefcovic is due to request a meeting with Lord Frost to discuss the UK’s proposals in more detail.
However, should the two sides fail to agree terms, he reiterated that the EU would “not be shy in reacting firmly and resolutely to ensure that the letter and the spirit of the protocol are respected”.
Warning that if the UK did so he feared a “downward spiral in our relations” he continued: “The EU will not – and cannot – accept this delicate balance being unilaterally changed or disapplied because of buyer’s remorse.”
Responding to Mr Sefcovic’s comments on Friday night, Lord Frost said: “I am glad he signals, on Northern Ireland, that the EU is ‘willing to find creative solutions when required’."
“I agree, as he says, that there is still a ‘window for productive political dialogue and positive results’, and we remain ready to work with the EU on this – though time is now very pressing if we are to find solutions together.”