Northern Ireland news

Sunak and European Commission president to hold face-to-face talks on protocol

Mark Francois, chairman of the European Research Group made up of Eurosceptic Tory MPs (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Patrick Daly, PA Political Correspondent

Rishi Sunak will hold face-to-face talks in the UK with the European Commission president as he looks to finalise a deal to fix issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In a joint statement on Sunday from Downing Street and the European Commission, they confirmed the Prime Minister and Ursula von der Leyen would meet to discuss the “range of complex challenges around” the Brexit treaty.

It comes after speculation mounted that a deal could be announced imminently, with Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab saying Britain and the European Union were on the “cusp” of striking an agreement.

In the joint statement issued by Downing Street, the pair said: “Today, president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Rishi Sunak, agreed to continue their work in person towards shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“President von der Leyen will therefore meet with the Prime Minister in the UK tomorrow.”

Speculation has been rife for the past week that the UK and the EU are about to announce a plan designed to solve trade frictions caused by the protocol.

Ms von der Leyen had been due to travel to Britain on Saturday to hold talks with Mr Sunak, as well as meet the King at Windsor Castle, but the plans were scrapped.

The latest announcement opens the door for a potential unveiling of fresh protocol terms during the German politician's visit on Monday.

The commission's online calendar states that Ms von der Leyen's meeting with Mr Sunak on Monday will take place in Windsor, suggesting No 10 plans to stick with the original location it had pencilled in for her weekend trip.

Had Saturday led to a breakthrough, Downing Street had reportedly been keen to brand the Prime Minister's deal the “Windsor Agreement”.

Speaking to The Sunday Times on Saturday, Mr Sunak said he planned to work all weekend to nail down revised terms as he looks to keep hardline Conservative Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on side.

He told the newspaper he was “giving it everything we've got” to finalise a fix for the protocol, a Brexit treaty negotiated by former prime minister Boris Johnson.

The protocol, signed by Mr Johnson in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit, with Northern Ireland continuing to follow EU rules on goods to prevent checks being needed when crossing into the Republic.

But the trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain created by the treaty has created Unionist tension, with Mr Sunak admitting that it had “unbalanced” the Good Friday Agreement that helped end the Troubles bloodshed in the province.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has issued seven tests that Mr Sunak's new pact will have to meet in order to win the party's backing, including addressing what he calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.

Mr Raab, who is also the Justice Secretary, appeared to set out some of what has been agreed so far in the London-Brussels negotiations during interviews with broadcasters on Sunday.

The Leave campaigner said it was “right that there is a Northern Irish democratic check on” new rules the EU makes that apply to Belfast — a hint that Mr Sunak has looked to address the DUP's concern over the democratic deficit.

He indicated that reports of red and green lanes to ease customs checks in Northern Ireland were correct.

“Those are the kind of things we have been pushing for,” he told Sky News.

Several reports have suggested trusted traders will be able to send goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland without checks, while goods destined for Ireland and the EU's single market will go through red inspection lanes.

Mr Raab said the cut to trade red tape would lead to a “substantial scaling back” of the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), but he refused to rule out it having a say on future legal cases.

The ability of European judges to rule on disputes involving EU laws in Northern Ireland is a particular bugbear for Tory Eurosceptics.

Mark Francois, chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) made up of anti-EU Tory MPs, told Sky's Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme that “less of a role” for the Luxembourg court was “not enough” of a concession.

The Prime Minister is likely to face anger within his party if he does not give Parliament a vote on what he comes back from Brussels with.

His deputy Mr Raab was reluctant to commit to giving MPs a vote

The Justice Secretary, facing a number of questions on whether a vote would take place, told Sky: “I think, inevitably, Parliament will find a way to have its say.”

Mr Francois warned that any attempt by Downing Street to “bludgeon this through the House of Commons without a vote of any kind would be incredibly unwise”.

The Prime Minister is keen for his party to unite if there is a vote, to avoid him being in a position where he would have to rely on Labour votes, with Sir Keir Starmer's party offering Mr Sunak its backing if he fixes the major protocol obstacles.

But Mr Francois said that, without the DUP's support for any protocol deal, the revisions are “simply not going to fly”, leading to speculation that the ERG could also withhold voting in favour.