Brexiteers Face Grim New Reality as Sunak Nears Northern Ireland Deal
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Rishi Sunak aims to convince his opponents to back a deal with the European Union on Northern Ireland next week, as Brexit purists privately concede they do not have the power to block any new agreement.
While technical discussions continue to iron out final issues, the UK prime minister has secured 90% of his demands in the talks with the EU, people close to the UK side said. They warned Sunak may have to proceed without the support of some Northern Ireland unionists and Tory Brexiteers, though he hopes to win others round.
Northern Ireland Parties Hail Brexit Progress But Say More Work to Do
In an effort to secure backing for an agreement, Sunak on Friday met regional party leaders in Belfast, telling them significant progress had been made, but without furnishing final details. He held further talks with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Munich on Saturday, with plans drawn up for an announcement as soon as next week.
“The leaders agreed to remain in close contact over the coming days,” after a positive discussion on Northern Ireland, according to a statement from Number 10. There has been good progress, though intensive work is still needed.
At stake is the UK government’s ability to reset relations with the EU, its biggest trading partner, that have been poisoned by the dispute for the three years since Britain formally left the bloc. Another prize is the formation of a power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland — blocked by the Democratic Unionist Party for more than a year in protest at the so-called protocol, the portion of the Brexit deal governing the region’s trade.
“There are still challenges to work through,” Sunak said Saturday in a conversation with Bloomberg Television’s Maria Tadeo at the Munich Security Conference. “There isn’t a deal that has been done. There is an understanding of what needs to be done.”
Even so, the flurry of outreach to European and Northern Ireland officials indicates the endgame is near in resolving the dispute. Unionists and successive British governments have said the protocol isn’t working because it’s created new trade frictions between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, effectively establishing a customs border in the Irish Sea and weakening the region’s place in the UK.
Party leaders emerged from Friday’s meetings with Sunak to say discussions have advanced, but more work needs to be done. Significantly, DUP Leader Jeffrey Donaldson said “progress has been made across a range of areas,” and that he was “hopeful” an agreement can be reached that meets his party’s seven tests. But he also said “there are still some areas where further work is required.”
Officials at Number 10 say a deal would be a major improvement on the status quo and it’s time to resolve the issue. A Cabinet minister called for compromise, saying unionists and Brexiteers must show they are reasonable and not make the perfect the enemy of the good.
Sunak himself has made clear in private conversations that he is determined to agree a deal and avoid a trade war with Europe, multiple people familiar with those conversations said. Bloomberg has reported that Sunak told his ministers to reset relations with the bloc.
There are signs of waning resistance. One prominent Brexiteer MP said their grouping no longer had the fight or political ability to secure the purest form of Brexit. They conceded a deal and a likely Labour government after the next election means the UK will pivot toward closer ties Europe over the next decade.
Downing Street has sought to keep recent negotiations with the EU secret as it tries to manage the DUP and Tory Brexiteers, but people close to the talks shared details of the state of play with Bloomberg on condition of anonymity.
The main British achievement is EU agreement to their proposal for so-called “green” and “red” lanes for goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and Europe respectively, the people said. That outcome would end onerous checks and paperwork on goods traveling within the UK, they said.
However, Britain has been unable to convince the EU that there should be no role for the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland. The EU, for its part, has assured member states that integrity of single market and ECJ will be respected.
ECJ Red Line
Under a provisional agreement, Northern Ireland’s courts would still be able to refer disputes up to the ECJ, the people close to the talks said.
Nevertheless, the UK government will argue that this is unlikely to ever happen, and that the proposal meets the DUP’s tests, which require any deal to “give the people of Northern Ireland a say in the making of the laws which govern them.”
But the ECJ’s role has been a red line for hard-line unionists and Brexiteers, who say no EU law should apply in the UK. That means Sunak may ask von der Leyen for further concessions on the court this weekend, though without expectations she’ll accede, a person close to the talks said.
The political situation is very different to the one that confronted Theresa May and Boris Johnson, the person said. While May couldn’t get her proposals through the House of Commons, her opponents in the DUP and the European Research Group of Tory Brexiteers are much less powerful now and have no mechanism to stop a deal. Moreover, Labour’s support means the government easily has the numbers to win any Commons vote.
The UK government believes the DUP is fractured, and sees Donaldson as amenable, a government official said. Similarly, while some ERG MPs are likely to oppose a deal, Brexiteers recognize they don’t have the ability to stop one completely, they said. The euro-skeptic group has been weakened by former senior members Suella Braverman, Chris Heaton-Harris and Steve Baker now serving as ministers.
The government official said the DUP is at a political crossroads and that the people of Northern Ireland wanted power-sharing restored and a government to focus on addressing the cost-of-living crisis. Backing a deal could provide the DUP with a needed political win, they said. If they oppose it and refuse to restore power-sharing, they risk worsening their domestic political position and increasing the long-term risk of a united Ireland, they said.
The official said there were three possible outcomes: that the DUP agrees to a deal and it proceeds unopposed; a more likely scenario in which some DUP and ERG MPs oppose an agreement but can’t block it; and one in which Sunak attempts further negotiations, largely for show.
All signs pointed to an agreement being announced sooner rather than later, they said, adding that one thing is certain: what ever happens won’t be pretty.
--With assistance from Kitty Donaldson, Alberto Nardelli, Jorge Valero and Morwenna Coniam.
(Updates with Sunak meeting Von der Leyen.)
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