A senior EU official has said the talks on the Northern Ireland Protocol should move into a "discreet" phase during the upcoming Assembly Elections campaign, but warned that the EU would have to "rethink" the process if the talks were no longer "meaningful".

The official said some progress had been made on reducing the number of customs formalities on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland but there remain significant gaps when it came to agrifood checks.

Technical talks have been going on between both sides since last autumn after the UK published its Command Paper, seeking sweeping changes to the Protocol, and the EU responded with its own proposals.

During the talks, the checks and controls on consignments moving GB-NI have been scaled back due to the UK's unilateral "stand still" approach.

The official warned that the lack of checks and controls was "deeply unsatisfactory" and that at a certain point the EU would have to assess whether the talks process was leading to solutions.

The official said: "I'm not going to give you a date because the EU has always made a point of not creating artificial deadlines. I can certainly confirm that from an EU perspective the current situation is deeply unsatisfactory, in terms of the checks which have been carried out in non-implementation of the protocols, and that situation needs to be addressed.

"That's why we act in all of this with a sense of urgency. So long as we see that the technical discussions are meaningful, we’ll want them to continue. If we come to the conclusion that they are no longer constructive or meaningful, we'll have to have a rethink."

It is understood the EU side raised the question of moving the talks into a more "discreet" phase during today’s meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee, the high level forum for implementing the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

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There have been regular meetings at political level between Liz Truss and Maroš Šefčovič (file pic)

According to the EU official, the regular meetings at political level between the UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič raised expectations about progress which were often not met.

"I think that the UK… will want there to be some political contacts because they have an interest in showing that the process of discussion continues and visibly so," said the official.

"But I don't think that in the context of an election campaign, which is polarised, this kind of weekly rhythm of those political contacts is necessary.

"In addition, it may be a good moment at a technical level for us to go away, to think, to engage…on specific issues at a technical level where we think we can make progress."

The official said the EU had accepted in principle the UK argument in its Command Paper of last July that a distinction should be made between goods that are moving from GB to Northern Ireland and remaining there for end-users, and those goods which go on to cross the land border into the single market.

Under the Northern Ireland only model, there would be a simplified customs procedure, while if goods were going on to the South the full gamut of EU checks and controls would apply, the official said.

The EU has proposed that under the simplified customs procedure, the number of data fields in a customs declaration could be reduced from 80 to 30.

However, Brussels believes that the UK has said that those 30 fields "go too far".

The sticking point appears to be the customs code, or CN (combined nomenclature), which contains a wide range of information about the product and its origin.

According to the EU, the CN can be reduced from 10 digits to eight but that would be the bare minimum to allow officials to know exactly what the good was and its origin, in order for a risk analysis to be carried out.

It is understood the UK wants this customs code to be removed altogether as it reinforces the impression of a customs barrier on the Irish Sea.

The official gave the example of olive oil.

"There are some kinds of olive oil - extra virgin olive oil - which are usually moved for consumption by restaurants and people in kitchens. There are other kinds of olive oil, which are used for processing.

"It's only if you know with sufficient detail what kind of olive oil you're dealing with, that you can then carry out a risk assessment about whether it's likely to be consumed in Northern Ireland, or whether it will have another purpose. That's the kind of issue on which the technical discussion needs to continue."

The official said that even according to the UK Command Paper, checks on agrifood products and live animals would be necessary if they were moving on across the border.

For that reason, the UK must complete Border Control Posts (BCPs) at Northern Ireland ports, the official said. The completion of BCPs has been the source of fierce resistance by the DUP.

"Even if you take the UK best case scenario, which is the Command Paper, in that best case scenario…, you have goods which are moving from GB to NI and then onwards into the EU internal market.

"For those goods, standard 100% EU procedures apply, not the enormous facilitations we propose for [goods] moving between GB and NI.

"For that first category of goods, subject to the UK’s own argument of full procedures, you need BCPs. You need them, so why not get on with it?"

The official said that the UK side had raised the issue of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) during negotiations.

However, the official said that the UK’s "ideas on the ECJ are contrary to the protocol. And that's the reason for which we've made no progress. And I would add that on ECJ, this is not the issue which is raised by businesses, by citizens in Northern Ireland. We focus on the ones which are."

Following the Joint Committee meeting the EU's Maros Sefcovic said both sides understood each other better on the customs side of the talks.

"With the right focus on this issue, we'll be able to move forward," he said.

He said there could be "drastic" reduction of customs procedures agrifood checks, so that the overwhelming majority of trucks coming to Northern Ireland could pass through express lanes or green channels.

"But to get there we need very clearly safeguards so I can come to meet members of the European Parliament, member states or my colleagues in the college [of Commissioners] and tell them, yes, the integrity of the single market is protected."