Hopes for an agreement between the EU and Great Britain on trade issues related to Northern Ireland have received a strong boost: British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen want to meet in person on Monday in the struggle for an agreement. The two come together in Great Britain, as the EU Commission and Sunak's Downing Street office announced on Sunday evening. The politicians had decided to continue working personally on practical solutions for the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol. The meeting is expected to announce a settlement in the long dispute.
Intensive negotiations on changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol had taken place in recent months. The document, which is part of the Brexit agreement, stipulates that the British province will remain part of the European single market and that the customs border between the UK and the EU will run in the Irish Sea. This was to prevent border controls between British Northern Ireland and the EU member Republic of Ireland having to be introduced. Otherwise it was expected that the conflict about unifying the two parts of Ireland would flare up again.
The aim of the regulation was to secure peace in Northern Ireland and at the same time to protect the European internal market. The border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland must remain open under the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. The agreement ended the three-decade conflict in Northern Ireland. However, Northern Ireland's unionists find the protocol unacceptable, fearing for Northern Ireland's affiliation with the United Kingdom.
Crucial to the success of an agreement is therefore whether Sunak will manage to get the largest Protestant Unionist party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, behind him. In protest against the protocol, they have been blocking the formation of a government in the British part of the country for months and are demanding drastic changes.
The hard core of Brexit supporters in the British Tory party and his predecessor Boris Johnson also warned Prime Minister Sunak against making too many concessions to the EU.
Sunak wants to ensure that the envisaged agreement with the EU "ensures the free flow of trade throughout the UK, secures Northern Ireland's place within the UK and restores sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland," the Prime Minister's office said.
In several guest posts and interviews, Sunak has already prepared his party, his critics and the British people for the agreement. "Brexit is still not fully implemented and I want to bring this to an end," Sunak said in an interview with the Sunday Times.
"We need to make Brexit work for the whole of the UK," he wrote in the conservative Telegraph. According to the newspaper, there is already resistance in his own cabinet and Northern Ireland Minister Steve Baker is already considering his resignation. In the tabloid Sun, Sunak assured readers that he would remain a staunch Brexiteer despite his alleged compromise with the EU.
Representatives from London and Brussels had been struggling to find solutions to the problems that had arisen since the Brexit Treaty came into force in 2020. Transitional phases imposed unilaterally by London ensured that the necessary controls were not yet fully implemented. While ex-Prime Minister Johnson and his short-term successor Liz Truss threatened to unilaterally withdraw from the protocol, current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak struck a more constructive note.
The British Parliament should still be able to vote on the deal negotiated with Brussels. The opposition Labor Party has announced its support for the Conservative government.