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Britain and the EU struck an eleventh-hour Trade Co-operation Agreement (TCA) on Christmas Eve following months of bitter talks, which set out trading arrangements to come into place on January 1. On Thursday, MEPs on the European Parliament’s trade and foreign affairs committees gave their consent to the deal, raising hope of a possible improvement in strained relations between the two sides over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

But after weeks of delays, Brussels ministers have still not formally ratified the deal, with group leaders in the European Parliament refusing to set a date for a final vote.

The provisional application for the deal is due to expire at the end of April, and the UK has repeatedly warned it expects the EU to complete its ratification process by then.

In a warning to Brussels, a Downing Street spokesman said: “We have agreed to extend the deadline for the EU to ratify the deal to 30 April and we expect them to complete their processes to this timeline.”

The ratification of the deal has been further complicated by simmering tensions between UK and EU negotiators over the full implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol after Brexit.

The UK’s Brexit minister and former chief negotiator Lord Frost met European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic in Brussels for talks on Thursday evening in a bid to iron out the “significant differences” between the two sides on the issue.

The protocol is aimed at preventing a hard border with Ireland and after Brexit has seen the North remain part of the single market for goods, resulting in products arriving from Britain being subject to EU import regulations.

But the protocol has also been blamed as a central factor driving the recent upsurge in violence in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland amid concerns from those communities it has weakened their place in the UK by erecting barriers to trade with Great Britain.

The arrangements formed part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, which was agreed upon prior to the UK leaving the EU at the end of January 2020.

Tensions have surged even further by the UK’s unilateral decision to extend grace periods to help retailers in Northern Ireland struggling with supplies, meaning the checks meant to be in place after Brexit are not yet in place.

This pushed the EU over the edge, with Brussels launching legal action against the UK, and warning on Friday this would “be continued as long as necessary”.

The talks between Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic in the Belgian capital on Thursday also appear to have done little to ease the simmering tensions between the two sides.

Brussels has warned only jointly agreed solutions to trading issues are acceptable.

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The European Commission said in a statement: “The vice-president insisted on mutually agreed paths towards full compliance with the Protocol, which includes clear end-points, deadlines, milestones and the means to measure progress.”

The statement added legal action against Britain would “be continued as long as necessary”.

Downing Street admitted “some positive momentum half been established” in the talks between Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic but warned “a number of difficult issues remained”.

A UK Government spokesman said: “Lord Frost said that the intensive discussions between the co-chairs of the Specialised Committee on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in recent weeks had begun to clarify the outstanding issues, and some positive momentum had been established.

“But a number of difficult issues remained and it was important to continue to discuss them.

“He agreed there should be intensified contacts at all levels in the coming weeks.”

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