Brussels has warned that leaks of delicate UK-EU discussions revamping Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit economic arrangements might jeopardise an agreement between the two sides. The intervention comes as British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak tries to figure out if he can sell his MPs and pro-UK parties in the area on a possible compromise on the Northern Ireland protocol, which is part of the Brexit deal.
Sunak will have difficulty pitching any compromise with Brussels to Conservative MPs and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party. Media stories about a potential agreement have exacerbated that work.
Lord David Frost, a prominent Euroskeptic Conservative and former minister for Brexit, said Sunak gave Brussels the upper hand in protocol talks. The European Commission asked the bloc’s member states not to leak information about the UK-EU negotiations, warning they may “endanger the entire process”, according to a report of a meeting on Wednesday of EU ambassadors.
The commission told the national representatives “adequate space, time, and discretion due to the high sensitivities on both sides and the current situation inside the UK government.” This was a clear reference to the pressure on Sunak. Officials reassured EU member states from the European Commission that any compromise agreement would be based on the Northern Ireland protocol and the need to “make it work in reality” instead of making big changes.
Downing Street dismissed a story in The Times on Wednesday that a protocol agreement had been reached with Brussels, saying there was still more work to be done on post-Brexit commercial arrangements for the area. “There is still more work to be done in all areas, with considerable gaps remaining between the UK and EU stances,” Sunak’s spokesperson said.
Ursula von der Leyen, in charge of the commission, said that she was optimistic about the talks between the UK and the EU to reduce business problems between the UK and Northern Ireland. The area is still a member of the EU’s single market for goods. Von der Leyen said that the negotiations were “quite fruitful” but continuing and that she had a “really trusted and wonderful connection” with Sunak.
The European Research Group and the DUP are made up of Euroskeptic Tory MPs. At Irish Sea ports, they want to get rid of the internal trade border between the UK and Ireland. Conservatives who oppose the EU want the European Court of Justice to lose jurisdiction over Northern Ireland.
Frost alleged that Sunak was negotiating with the EU “with a weaker hand” than was required. In a prologue to a Policy Exchange paper, Frost claimed that Sunak had withdrawn a negotiation instrument with Brussels by “essentially abandoning” the government’s Northern Ireland protocol bill, which would unilaterally modify that section of the Brexit accord.
Several sources close to the UK-EU talks said the bloc had agreed in principle to a system of “red and green lanes” to decrease inspections on goods flowing from the UK to Northern Ireland but that discussions over the extent of the arrangements were still ongoing.
Goods that cross the Irish Sea and will be sold in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, would use a green lane with fewer physical inspections and real-time customs data to back it up. Goods going to the Republic of Ireland and the EU would enter through a red lane and be subject to full customs and regulatory procedures. Some British officials have said that the UK might be willing to let the ECJ stay involved in Northern Ireland in a limited way.
But Downing Street believed problems could only be solved in Northern Ireland courts after they were sent to Luxembourg. The DUP has prevented a resumption of Northern Ireland’s devolved government since elections in May last year in its demand for a fundamental revision of the region’s post-Brexit trade arrangements.
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, still wants “arrangements that reestablish Northern Ireland’s status in the UK internal market and respect our constitutional position.” On Twitter, he said London and Brussels “knew that political progress” needed unionist support. Like Sunak, the DUP is under pressure from the Traditional Unionist Voice, a hard-line rival.