No 10 raises prospect of protocol breakthrough as PM holds ‘final talks' with EU
No 10 has signalled that there could be a potential breakthrough in the Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations as the Prime Minister conducts “final talks” with the European Union.
Rishi Sunak will meet the European Commission president in the UK on Monday to discuss a “range of complex challenges” around the Brexit treaty, Downing Street has announced.
After the discussions with Ursula von der Leyen, the Conservative Party leader will brief his Cabinet before potentially announcing to voters and MPs the details of the deal that has been struck.
A meeting of the Cabinet will follow the leaders’ lunchtime talks, with a joint press conference with Mr Sunak and his Brussels counterpart on the cards afterwards should a pact to fix the issues with the protocol be agreed.
Downing Street said that should there be a breakthrough after months of negotiations, Mr Sunak will give a statement in the House of Commons.
Tory MPs were last week handed a three-line whip instructing them to turn up to Parliament on Monday, raising the prospect Mr Sunak could make an appearance at the despatch box.
While Downing Street has been tight-lipped about where the discussions between Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen will take place, the commission’s online calendar suggests they will rendezvous at Windsor.
Ms von der Leyen had been due to travel to the UK on Saturday to speak to the Prime Minister and then have afternoon tea with the King at Windsor Castle before the plans were cancelled.
At Cabinet on Monday, Mr Sunak will brief ministers, alongside those most closely involved, including Foreign Secretary James Cleverly — who has met regularly in recent weeks with commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic — and Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris.
Announcing the plan for Monday and the potential for a protocol deal to be announced, No 10 officials said: “The leaders are expected to meet late lunchtime for final talks.
“The Prime Minister wants to ensure any deal fixes the practical problems on the ground, ensures trade flows freely within the whole of the UK, safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in our Union and returns sovereignty to the people of Northern Ireland.
“There will be a Cabinet in the afternoon, where the Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will update on the talks.
“This builds on updates that Cabinet have received throughout the process as the Government has been pushing for a negotiated solution in the best interest of the people of Northern Ireland and intensive engagement over the weekend.
“If a final deal is agreed, the Prime Minister and the president of the European Commission will then hold a short joint press conference in the late afternoon.
“The Prime Minister will then head to the House of Commons to deliver a statement on the agreement.
“Over the past few months, there have been intensive negotiations with the EU – run by British ministers — and positive, constructive progress has been made.
“There have been hundreds of hours of talks covering all issues at stake and talking from first principles — what works for Northern Ireland.”
The protocol was negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson as part of Britain’s exit from the EU.
To avoid a hard border in Ireland, Mr Johnson agreed that Northern Ireland would remain subject to Brussels rules on goods so that trade could move freely between a member of the bloc’s single market and a country outside of its remit.
But the added checks and paperwork on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland has riled Unionists, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) collapsing the Belfast powersharing agreement with Sinn Fein last year in protest at the treaty’s impact.