On Wednesday, Maroš Šefcovic, the EU's lead person on the Northern Ireland Protocol, sat through a 90 minute zoom call with DUP leader Edwin Poots.

"It wasn't a particularly constructive meeting," says one diplomat. "It was very much the DUP party line on the Protocol - unyielding."

By Thursday night Edwin Poots was gone, and the EU is now wondering who will replace him, and how hardline his successor might be on the Protocol.

"It's not welcome in many ways," says the diplomat. "Because it has now destabilised the Northern Ireland Executive further. It's not at all clear that the First Minister post is now tenable."

The day after the Poots video call (Mr Šefcovic had spoken to Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill earlier that day), the UK was briefing that it had asked the European Commission for an extension to the grace period that covers the import of chilled meats into Northern Ireland from GB.

Edwin Poots has now gone as First Minister

Indeed, David Frost, the UK Brexit minister, had himself told the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee on Tuesday: "We have suggested to the EU that the right way forward would be to agree to extend the [chilled meats] grace period, at least for a bit, to provide a bit of breathing space for the current discussions to continue and try to find solutions."

This was news to Brussels.

"We’re not aware of any recent request on this," said one EU source. "It has definitely not been raised recently."

The source said the UK had not raised the idea in the obvious forum - last week’s Joint Committee meeting in London. UK officials insist they had made a request, perhaps not formally, and speculated about "communication difficulties" between London and Brussels.

Either way, when both sides talk about communications issues, it is often a harbinger of some kind of movement.

The movement in this case is that the UK has asked the EU for an extension to the grace period covering chilled meats, and not simply extended the grace period unilaterally.

The grace period was agreed by Maroš Šefcovic and Frost’s predecessor Michael Gove on 8 December.

For six months, chilled meats (normally banned from entering the EU from third countries) could continue to be imported into Northern Ireland from GB.

These included minced poultry, ratites (large flightless birds like emu and ostrich), wild game-birds, frozen or chilled, chilled mince from non-poultry animals, chilled meat preparations, and unprocessed meat produced from meat initially imported in Great Britain from the EU’s (food safety) SPS area.

The UK issued a Unilateral Declaration on 17 December, stating that such meats would continue to flow into Northern Ireland until 1 July, subject to the conditions insisted on by the Commission.

These were that they would enter a designated Border Control Post in Larne or Belfast, be subject to a "channelling" procedure between the port and destination supermarkets.

They would also be sold "exclusively to end consumers in supermarkets located in Northern Ireland, and [not to] other operators of the food chain".

Member states, especially France and Germany, are pressuring the Commission to be ready with a precise legal response to further unilateral moves by the UK

The meats would have to be accompanied by UK export health certificates and labels would ensure that "these products from the United Kingdom may not be sold outside Northern Ireland".

The UK’s declaration concluded: "During this period, which will be used by supermarkets in Northern Ireland to adjust, the United Kingdom remains fully aligned to [European] Union law applicable to meat products and listed in Annex 2 to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland."

The EU regarded these commitments as pre-conditions to the grace periods being granted, and that the grace period was designed to allow Northern Ireland retailers to source such meats elsewhere, either in the South, or locally in Northern Ireland.

Any suggestions that the UK would unilaterally disregard its commitments prompted the Commission to warn about a swift, but staggered, legal response.

Maroš Šefcovic has told member states the EU will not fall into the trap of a "sausage war", by going for immediate retaliatory tariffs via the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) should the UK unilaterally extend the chilled meats grace period.

Instead, the Commission would continue on the path of legal action, formally launched in March after the UK unilaterally extended another grace period, followed by arbitration through the Withdrawal Agreement, and finally - as a last resort - cross-retaliation through the TCA.

It’s understood the next step in the legal action - a "reasoned opinion" in response to the UK’s initial response to infringement proceedings - has been concluded by the European Commission.

The timing of the sending of that "reasoned opinion" will be governed by an assessment of the political temperature in Northern Ireland.

"The Reasoned Opinion text is finalised," says one source. "The other legal route, via the political letter, is to resort to arbitration under the Withdrawal Agreement.

"Internally, the Commission believes the legal processes have come to a conclusion and is ready to go. It’s simply a question of timing, and what's happening politically."

That is why the UK request for an extension to the chilled meats grace period could be an important signal.

Yesterday, Maroš Šefcovic, speaking at the College of Europe in Bruges, acknowledged London’s less confrontational approach.

"There must be a genuine determination to make the Protocol work, rather than looking for ways to erode it. And there must be an end to damaging unilateral action, in favour of joint action through joint bodies.

"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," he said.

Will the European Commission grant the request?

A statement on Thursday night said the Commission would "assess" it, but that for creative solutions to be found, the Protocol would have to be implemented.

"There is no alternative to the Protocol," the statement said.

"If the UK is looking for a further extension, and is still not complying with the conditions attached to the current extension, that's problematic," says one EU diplomat.

"At the same time, the Commission is very sensitive to the political situation in Northern Ireland, to the marching season, and also to the implications of the grace period ending."

One industry source in Northern Ireland says: "If the EU is wise, they will take this cap-in-hand ask from the UK government, because no-one wants an escalation over the next six weeks.

"Northern Ireland is already like a tinderbox. So this is an easy way for the EU to show magnanimity as well as showing they basically care about Northern Ireland."

Overshadowing all these ideas is the fact that the UK has still not given the EU access to its import clearance databases.

The source pointed out that, while there are not huge volumes of GB sausages and chilled meats arriving in Northern Ireland, they often are a staple for families on a budget. So there are real-world, as well as symbolic, issues at stake.

On balance, the Commission is likely to agree to the request, although Maroš Šefcovic will have to get the agreement of member states.

That will not be a slam dunk. Many EU capitals have grown increasingly impatient with the UK’s failure to implement the Protocol, and then to lay the blame for everything at the EU’s door.

One source says there will be a firm expectation that any extension will be part of a package and that the UK will be expected to meet certain conditions and targets.

The same applies to the other areas in which the EU is working on solutions, namely when it comes to medicines, guide dogs, VAT on second hand cars, and tariffs and quotas on steel entering Northern Ireland.

Maroš Šefcovic will have to get the agreement of member states

Member states, especially France and Germany, are pressuring the Commission to be ready with a precise legal response to further unilateral moves by the UK, or if Boris Johnson makes good on his threat to trigger Article 16 of the Protocol, in effect refusing to apply it.

Officials have been exploring a range of retaliatory responses that could be taken through the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

It’s understood some officials want to go so far as to invoke air transport rights as a retaliatory measure, although that option has been deemed somewhat outlandish, and disproportionate.

But the EU believes it has retaliatory tools at its disposal if the UK simply refuses to implement what it signed up to.

Should the EU accede to the UK request on the grace period, it would provide breathing space and an improved atmosphere.

Following the bruising encounters of the G7, and Joe Biden's ministrations on the Protocol, the UK may have calculated that a cooperative approach is wiser.

While both sides remain at an impasse over how to deal with the food safety and animal health (SPS) issue, the UK is pushing a midpoint between dynamic alignment via an SPS veterinary agreement, and an equivalence agreement (the UK’s favoured approach).

Dynamic alignment would mean the UK remaining aligned to EU food safety rules, even for a temporary period, as a way of doing away with 80% of the checks and controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea.

Equivalence is where the EU would recognise the UK’s food safety standards as broadly similar to its own. The EU argues this only dispenses with a small percentage of the checks.

The new UK proposal is that both sides start out acknowledging each other’s food safety standards, and that if either side introduced rules that would deviate from those high standards, the other could - via an arbitration panel - restore a heavier degree of checks and controls so as to mitigate any risk caused by the divergence.

One industry source, familiar with discussions, has spoken of a bio-security monitoring committee that would arbitrate the impact of legislative divergence.

This would not be entirely dissimilar to the level playing field provisions in the TCA.

At the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee hearing on Tuesday, David Frost said that dynamic alignment would mean the EU "policing" the agreement through the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

Could a model be created in which the ECJ is kept out of the equation, as it largely was in the TCA?

"We are open to exploring options with the EU to resolve this issue in order to protect the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and minimise disruption to everyday lives," said a UK spokesperson.

"The [British] government has proposed an arrangement based on equivalence, but we are clear that the UK cannot accept a veterinary agreement that is based on dynamic alignment with EU rules in perpetuity.

"Dynamic alignment would leave us bound to large tranches of EU law and in the regulatory orbit of EU institutions."

The EU side regards the UK idea as "souped up equivalence", and does not appear, yet at least, to be convinced.

"Fundamentally, the Commission has been seeking a system which would require dynamic alignment and ultimately referral to the ECJ if there was a dispute," says one diplomat, familiar with discussions.

"The UK are talking about equivalence and an arbitration regime. So, there have been reflections going on.

"Is there something between the two red lines of equivalence, on the one hand, and dynamic alignment on the other, and could you square the circle of arbitration versus the ECJ?

"There have been some thoughts inside the Commission on this, but I don't think they have settled on any specific approach."

David Frost attended Westminster's Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Tuesday

That suggests the talks, at least, have something to work on. There are suggestions that both sides will hold a Specialised Committee meeting at some point before the end of June, mostly likely to flesh out the grace period extension idea, and to take stock of other issues.

It’s understood that some ideas were explored ad nauseam last year - such as a trusted trader scheme, whereby supermarkets upscale their own traceability and online surveillance systems for individual food products, to provide reassurances the EC would need about the provenance and safety of food.

Industry sources say this could be an auditable, certifiable model of traceability that all retailers would sign up to, with UK government support by way of a Digital Assistance Scheme (DAS).

"You have to guarantee the provenance of the food that's going to NI," says an industry source.

"You have to guarantee that it has been shipped securely and you have to guarantee either point of sale or point of delivery."

This idea was raised repeatedly during the Protocol discussions last year. However, back then there was an expectation that the UK might agree an SPS veterinary agreement as part of the TCA.

The fact that this has not happened means the European Commission might be inclined to look at it again.

Overshadowing all these ideas is the fact that the UK has still not given the EU access to its import clearance databases.

The European Commission says this was promised by the end of April, while the UK has argued that stripping out a Northern Ireland only database from the UK wide system has been both technically complicated, and fraught with legal issues.

The UK has said an interim database solution will be available at the end of this month, and a permanent solution in position by the end of the year.

The Commission insists that it cannot approach any solution, or test any claims from the UK about the scale of checks and the burden they impose, unless member states, and their officials on the ground, can get an accurate, real-time picture of what goods are entering Northern Ireland from GB.

For now, it seems certain that the European Commission will get the issues back into "process", and away from the limelight of the marching season.

It’s understood an agreement ensuring the flow of medicines from GB to Northern Ireland could be reached as soon as the end of this month.

Following the bruising encounters of the G7, and Joe Biden’s ministrations on the Protocol, the UK may have calculated that a cooperative approach is wiser.

Time will tell.