Britain wants to reach an agreement with the European Union to solve post-Brexit trade to Northern Ireland issues quickly, foreign minister James Cleverly said on Thursday, suggesting a softer approach to what has been an intractable dispute.
The stand-off over part of the Brexit agreement which governs trade with Northern Ireland is by far the biggest strain between the EU and Britain, which left the bloc on January 31st, 2020.
A major irritant is Britain's so-called Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which effectively tears up parts of the Brexit divorce deal. It was introduced by the UK's now prime minister Liz Truss when she was foreign minister.
Cleverly said while the government would pursue that bill and press its passage through parliament, it was simply a "safety net" and his first preference was for a negotiated settlement.
Referring to discussions with EU, US and Irish ministers, Cleverly told Reuters: "What I have seen is a collective desire to get this resolved."
"I detect a real atmosphere of goodwill," he added. "Our preferred option is, and has always been, a negotiated settlement. That's the tone we will take into the talks."
Both sides agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol as a way to avoid reinstating border controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic after Britain left the EU, seen as key to protecting peace on the island.
But the UK has since accused Brussels of a heavy-handed approach to moving goods between Britain and Northern Ireland, with unionist communities in the region saying it erodes their place in the United Kingdom.
London wants parts of the agreement to be changed but the EU maintains the protocol is a legally binding treaty freely entered into by London. The European Commission has launched a series of legal proceedings against Britain for breaches of the agreement.