Rishi Sunak is taking a risk to secure a deal with Brussels on Northern Ireland. He surprised Belfast by visiting the city, despite warnings from Tory Eurosceptics that he was not going far enough to accommodate the EU.
The UK’s prime minister seeks support from the Northern Irish parties to reach an outline agreement with the EU to end the dispute of two years over trade between the EU and the region. Unionists, Conservatives, and businesses claim that the current arrangements prevent them from doing business with the mainland.
Sunak will hold talks at Belfast, before heading to Munich, Germany on Saturday. There, he will meet EU leaders to resolve the damaging Brexit dispute.
However, he will face a backlash by Eurosceptic Tory MPs in the event that the Northern Ireland Protocol deal leaves EU judges with a control over the region as expected.
David Jones, the deputy chair of the pro Brexit Tory European Research Group, stated that Sunak had not discussed any potential agreement with his group. He argued that giving EU judges any jurisdiction over the UK “wouldn’t be acceptable to any country in the world.”
Jones said: “There would generally be dissatisfaction regarding the leadership of Conservative party, which wouldn’t bode well for leadership.”
Sunak recognizes that there is a risk that Eurosceptics, including the former prime minister Boris Johnson, could attack him if he makes an agreement with the EU.
He will make a decision over the weekend whether to pursue the deal, knowing that it could anger some Tory MPs, but help to rebuild relations between Britain and the EU, Britain’s largest trading partner.
Expectations of a deal are growing. Maros Sefcovic (the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator) will meet James Cleverly, the foreign secretary, at lunch in Brussels on Friday. Sefcovic will then brief Ambassadors from 27 EU member states in a private meeting.
Sunak plans to present the agreement to his cabinet Tuesday. While any agreement must be supported by EU member countries, there is broad support for the proposed changes by the commission.
Sunak will try to sell the deal first to the pro-UK Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. This party is boycotting Stormont ‘s assembly as a protest at the protocol and also meeting other business leaders.
Jones stated that the DUP will not be persuaded to return to power-sharing executive unless they reach a protocol agreement.
The British government expressed confidence that the agreement would be supported by the DUP. This is less than the Tory Eurosceptics who are more concerned about the role of EU judges.
The outline agreement, which was reached over several months by the UK and EU, aims to reduce border frictions at Irish Sea ports for trade between Great Britain (and Northern Ireland)
It would create a “green lanes” for goods that are intended to stay in Northern Ireland, and a “red lanes” for goods that are destined for Ireland or the EU single market. Both would be subject to inspections.
The EU insists that it must oversee trade in Northern Ireland. This was under the Johnson Brexit deal, and remained in the single European market for goods even after the UK left.
Even though both sides will insist that most cases will be resolved without recourse to the Luxembourg justices, the European Court of Justice will continue to play a significant role in enforcing the rules of single market.
Downing Street stated that talks with the EU are ongoing and ministers are in contact with stakeholders to “ensure any solution fixes the problems on the ground”, meets our overarching goals, and protects Northern Ireland’s position in the UK’s inner market.”
Sunak was due to meet political parties on Friday morning, but there were no details about any deals. One business leader stated that he believes the deal is still sound.
“Northern Irish parties feel already aggrieved about being left out so if it’s an ‘take it/leave it’ message that the prime minister is here, I wouldn’t surprise if they kick mud into the mix, and send him back with more problems,” stated Katy Hayward, a Queen’s College Belfast professor and expert on Brexit.
She stated that “the engagement really must happen jointly: UK and EU, as well as all parties.”