Britain’s Sunak meets with EU chief to finalize Northern Ireland deal
By William James
LONDON (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak is due to meet EU chief Ursula von der Leyen on Monday to finalize a new deal for Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade deals.
More than a year of stalled and sometimes acrid negotiations between London and Brussels over a revision of part of the 2020 exit agreement appear to be coming to an end, although it’s unclear whether an agreement will go far enough to anger critics in the UK Satisfy and Northern Ireland.
“(Sunak and von der Leyen) have agreed to continue their personal work on common, practical solutions to the complex set of challenges surrounding the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland,” read a joint statement released on Sunday.
“President von der Leyen will therefore meet the Prime Minister in Great Britain tomorrow.”
Sunak is attempting to succeed in talks where his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss failed, but the push risks swamping his domestic political priorities as he seeks to close a large opinion poll deficit for his Conservative Party ahead of those for next Year expected national elections to be canceled .
Even if an agreement is reached with Brussels, the announcement of a deal should only be the beginning.
Key players in Northern Ireland have set high standards for the kind of deal they would support, and Sunak’s own Conservatives are still riddled with the splits over Brexit that have dominated British politics since the country voted to leave the Union in 2016 temporarily paralyzed the EU.
As part of its Withdrawal Agreement, the UK signed an agreement with Brussels known as the Northern Ireland Protocol to avoid politically contentious controls along the 500km land border with EU member Ireland.
But the protocol effectively created a border on some goods imported from Britain because it considered Northern Ireland to be goods in the EU’s internal market.
It has also upset the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland and prevented the formation of a power-sharing government stipulated by a 1998 peace accord that largely ended three decades of sectarian violence in the province.
In an interview with the Sunday Times, Sunak said the shooting death of a police officer in Northern Ireland last week was a reminder of the fragility of the situation there.
Earlier Sunday, in a series of media interviews, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said the deal would ease trade tensions by easing physical controls on goods required by the EU under the original deal.
He also said the deal hoped to allay concerns that the EU can set rules for Northern Ireland that cannot be influenced by the region’s voters and politicians.
“If there are any new rules that would apply in relation to Northern Ireland, it must be right that there is Northern Irish democratic control over them,” he told the BBC.
However, Raab paused to say that European courts would no longer have a say in Northern Ireland. That was a key demand from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is currently refusing to enter into a new power-sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.
The DUP specified seven tests for each deal. The Sunday Times said Sunak was confident the deal would meet those conditions, but that DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson was “interested in rejecting the deal”.
Without the DUP’s approval, Northern Ireland could be left without a decentralized government, meaning that one of the key aims of Sunak’s renegotiations has failed.
A Eurosceptic contingent of the Conservative Party says it will be guided by the DUP’s final verdict, raising the risk of Sunak’s party fragmenting and derailing his economic, health and immigration reform agendas.
Asked if Parliament would vote to approve the deal, Raab said lawmakers have an opportunity to comment but didn’t specifically promise a vote.
That drew a stark warning from lawmaker Mark Francois, head of the Eurosceptic European Research Group, who told Sky:
“Given the whole story, it would be incredibly unwise for the Government to attempt to bludgeon this through the House of Commons without any vote.”
(Reporting by William James, Adaptation by Frank Jack Daniel, Christina Fincher and Frances Kerry)