LONDON – A Brexit deal may be almost done, but for Rishi Sunak, the hardest yards are still ahead.
With a draft deal now all but over, the UK prime minister must next tackle the seemingly-impossible task that brought down her predecessor Theresa May in 2019: persuading warring Tories to rally behind a compromise deal in Northern Ireland.
Despite repeated official denials, people close to EU-UK negotiations over the long-running Northern Ireland Protocol row say a technical deal is now sitting on Sunak’s desk for consideration. The Prime Minister must now figure out how to sell a deal to skeptical MPs from her own Conservative Party as well as Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), staunch opponents of the protocol.
A person familiar with the negotiations said Brussels was waiting for Sunac to review the administrative chapter of the technical deal struck by EU and UK officials and decide whether to stamp its signature on the deal. Governance – primarily about the role of the EU’s top court in the protocol system – could prove a key sticking point for Brexiteers, who are already campaigning for a vote on any deal.
“While compromise is something we should all and are willing to consider, there are some issues with EU law and jurisdiction that simply have to be dealt with,” former Tory cabinet minister Theresa Villiers told Times Radio this weekend.
Villiers, a prominent figure in the 2016 Leave campaign, made it clear that his fellow Brexiteers would not allow Sunak to push through his deal without a vote in the House of Commons.
“It is highly inconceivable that protocol changes could be implemented by the government without a vote in parliament,” he said. . I can think of no circumstances in which Parliament could be cut off from this question.
The protocol, agreed as part of the Brexit divorce deal, sees Northern Ireland adhere to the EU’s customs union and single market rules to avoid a politically-sensitive hard border with the neighboring Republic of Ireland, which remains an EU member. status.
But unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have long objected to the protocol, with the DEP boycotting power-sharing in the region and calling for the deal to be scrapped. Unionists argue that tariffs and sanitary checks on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland effectively isolate it from the rest of the UK, and are supported by Sunak’s Conservative Party critics who resent the European Court’s role in protocol governance.
Sunak was handed a proposed compromise earlier last week – but is still “micromanaging” the details while stalled in negotiations, a second person with knowledge of the situation said, although officials believe the proposals have met with the DUP. Seven tests for ratifying a contract.
“Parts of the contract have started leaking. When will Rishi inform the Cabinet, the ERG and the DUP about this? It seems the deal has fallen into a black hole,” said the second person.
“The EU also wants to get on with other things and we don’t have much time until the Belfast Agreement anniversary to get power-sharing back up and running,” they added, referring to the April anniversary of the historic Northern Irish peace deal. , is seen as an informal deadline by both parties to resolve the dispute.
But the announcement of a deal could still take weeks, officials from both sides said, and the expectation is that the schedule will be managed by Sunak as he tries to maximize the chances of opposing a deal. In London, Sunac’s official spokesman stressed that the UK and the EU were still working out the details. “There is still significant work to be done and there will be further discussions in all areas this week,” he said.
Speaking at a press conference on Monday, European Commission vice-president and Brexit point-man Maros Šefović said “progress is being made, but difficulties remain,” and warned that the final package “will not only work in practice” but also should. acceptable to the numerous stakeholders around our table” — which would appear to be a reference to the DUP.
Shefkovic declined to comment on media reports that the EU is willing to accept goods sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – and intended to remain there – to be treated with lighter-touch checks than goods going through Ireland to the EU’s single market. This would amount to a “green” and “red” lane model at Northern Irish ports proposed by the UK, and – RTE reported – would reduce not only customs formalities, but also animal health and food safety processes and checks.
If the EU is now willing to accept a reduction in such checks to “closer to zero”, it would be a “significant change” in the Commission’s position, said May’s former Brexit adviser Raoul Ruparel – who was brought down by his party over repeated opposition to a Brexit deal with Northern Ireland. .
Shefkovic suggested that the British proposal for a “green lane” was similar to the EU’s own “express lane” proposed solution – but insisted that the EU could only show flexibility on the tariff papers if the UK provided the Commission with “very hard information”. trade flows.” Both sides recently spoke of progress on allowing EU access to British databases to track goods.
Any customs progress, however, would require a significant change in governance to prevent contact with the protocol’s staunchest critics.
“It’s either protocol or power sharing,” DUP MP Ian Paisley told the BBC’s Nolan Show. “We can’t have both.” On the role of the European Union’s Court of Justice, he warned: “We cannot have a problem where Northern Ireland can be held accountable and responsible for something they have no say in.”
Brexiteer Tory MP Villiers noted, “There may be some agreement on the technical level in the customs process.” “But … actually changes to customs processes simply don’t solve the biggest problems with the protocol.”
For sage Sunak – like Theresa May – the way through is clear.