The Brexit talks were literally on thin ice today – as the EU’s Maros Sefcovic took a tumble on a slippery step.
The Foreign Secretary and ministers looked on aghast as he nearly lost his balance by the entrance to the stately home in Kent, but quickly recovered.
Mr Sefcovic tweeted pictures of the pair strolling around the grounds and said they had an ‘opportunity’ to resolve critical issues.
The Brexit divorce rules have been blamed for fuelling sectarian tensions in Northern Ireland, with the DUP demanding the protocol is axed altogether.
The UK government has threatened to invoke Article 16 and suspend the arrangements if Brussels does not agree to a deeper overhaul.
Maros Sefcovic nearly came a-cropper as he arrived at Chevening for discussions with Liz Truss on the Northern Ireland protocol
The EU vice-president and Foreign Secretary are holding discussions at the stately home in Kent today
Mr Sefcovic tweeted pictures of the pair strolling around the grounds and said they had an ‘opportunity’ to resolve critical issues
Speaking ahead of the talks, Ms Truss said: ‘There is a deal to be done that protects peace in Northern Ireland, defends our Union, and maintains the integrity of the United Kingdom and EU. But it will require a pragmatic approach from the EU.
‘I will be putting forward practical, reasonable solutions starting from these fundamental principles, with a view to agreeing a plan for intensive negotiations.
‘The EU has a clear responsibility to help fix the myriad problems caused by the Protocol and protect the Good Friday Agreement.’
Boris Johnson handed responsibility for Brexit to Ms Truss last month following the resignation of Brexit Minister Lord Frost over policy differences.
Lord Frost, who negotiated the original Brexit deal, adopted a hardline approach to the talks, which yielded a number of concessions, but which was also blamed by some for souring the mood on central issues.
One Foreign Office source said the new approach would be ‘carrot and stick, but more carrot than stick’.
Chevening, a 115-room mansion in Kent, is one of the grandest grace-and-favour properties on the Government’s books.
Mr Sefcovic and his team are being treated to a ‘political dinner’ hosted by Ms Truss this evening, where they will be served Scottish smoked salmon, Welsh lamb and Kent apple pie.
Further talks will then continue tomorrow morning before Mr Sefcovic returns to Brussels.
Officials hope that Ms Truss’s new proposals will then form the basis for two weeks of intensive negotiations before a further political meeting at the end of this month, probably in Brussels.
A source said she wanted to ‘focus on more practical solutions to the problems affecting people on the ground’.
Downing Street said the UK still believes the conditions for triggering Article 16 – unilaterally suspending parts of the treaty – have been reached, but the Government is still focused on trying to resolve the issues through talks.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We need to fix the problems in the protocol in order to protect the Belfast Agreement and the peace process.
‘The Foreign Secretary will be putting forward practical and reasonable solutions with a view to agreeing a plan for intensive negotiations.
The Foreign Secretary is hosting Mr Sefcovic for a two-day summit at her official country residence Chevening (pictured) as she tries to end the border row threatening to destabilise the Province
‘We very much believe there is a deal to be done but the EU must show pragmatism.
‘It remains our strong preference to reach a negotiated solution, which is what you can see we are seeking to achieve today.’
Mr Sefcovic tweeted: ‘In Dec, we delivered on medicines. Now we have an opportunity to do so on other issues, building on the EU’s far-reaching proposals. My objective: stability, predictability in NI.’
The Foreign Office source said the key principles established by Lord Frost would remain in place, with a focus on easing the flow of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland by cutting paperwork and checks, and ensuring that the European Court of Justice is not the ‘final arbiter’ of disputes.
Under the Brexit deal, Northern Ireland has been granted free access to the EU’s single market to prevent the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland.
But this has led to the imposition of onerous EU checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain.