EU and UK officials are expressing confidence that an overarching agreement on the outstanding issues of the Northern Ireland Protocol can be agreed in the coming weeks.

Sources say that officials are making progress on all the key obstacles that have held up the full implementation of the Protocol in recent months.

The Protocol is due to come into force on 1 January, when Northern Ireland remains within the EU's single market for goods and the rest of the UK formally leaves the European Union.

The most sensitive issues include how to determine which goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be at risk of crossing the border and therefore attract a potential tariff.

There are also issues over how to reconcile consignments of food for supermarkets with EU food safety rules and the construction of designated border control posts at Northern Ireland ports that will deal with animal health and food safety.

Other issues include how Northern Ireland will plug into the EU's VAT system for goods and the UK's VAT system for services. There also needs to be an agreement on the level of agriculture subsidies the UK will be entitled to grant to Northern Ireland farmers.

It is understood the question of EU food safety rules and a potential ban on sausages, mince and other prepared chilled foods of animal origin is also being addressed within the framework of the overall deal.

Officials are tight-lipped about the details of how the issues are being addressed due to their sensitivity, but they say there is now a clear choreography in place that should lead to an overall agreement by mid-December.

The issues have been dealt with under the EU-UK Joint Committee, set up under the Withdrawal Agreement, and the more technical Specialised Committee.

Last night, European Commission officials updated member states on the progress made so far.

"They ran through all the decisions that need to be taken and where we stand," says one official briefed on the meeting. "It seemed to be quite encouraging. Work is under way, there's been progress."

One diplomat said: "The general perception is that progress is being made across the board in all these sensitive subjects. It's going reasonably well."

Member states will have to approve a series of formal legal decisions, mandated under the Protocol, so that the system will have a proper legal base under EU law on 1 January.

The UK is being appraised of these legal texts, it is understood.

A meeting of the Joint Committee was scheduled for today but was postponed. It is now expected to take place next week, with a final Joint Committee meeting happening by mid-December.

It is thought that at that point the overall package will be formally signed off by both the EU and UK.

Both sides acknowledge that there is an interplay between the outworking of the Protocol issues and the conclusion of an EU-UK free trade agreement.

However, the Irish Government and EU are adamant that the Protocol comes into force irrespective of the conclusion of a free trade agreement.