Rishi Sunak strikes post-Brexit Northern Ireland deal with EU

London, Feb. 28 (BNA): British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak struck a deal with the European Union on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, on Monday, saying it would pave the way for a new chapter in London’s relationship with the bloc.

Standing next to European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a news conference in Windsor, Sunak said both sides had agreed to remove “any sense of borders” between Britain and its province – a situation that has angered politicians on both sides.

He immediately won plaudits from business groups who welcomed the relaxation of trade rules, and promised the EU that it would be willing to allow British scientists to join his broad research program if Sunak’s party agreed to the deal.

The deal represents a high-risk strategy for Sunak after only four months in office. Reuters reported that he was looking to improve relations with Brussels – and the United States – without upsetting the wing of his party most associated with Britain’s exit from the European Union.

The deal seeks to resolve tensions arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol, a complex agreement that laid out trade rules for the British-ruled territory that London agreed to before leaving the European Union but now says are not applicable.

Its success is likely to depend on whether it persuades the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to end its boycott of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements. These elements were central to the 1998 peace agreement known as the Good Friday Agreement that mostly ended three decades of sectarian and political violence in Northern Ireland.

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“I am pleased to report that we have now made decisive progress,” Sunak said of the new “Windsor Framework”. “This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship.”

The issue of Northern Ireland has been one of the most controversial issues in connection with the 2020 Brexit. A return to the hard border between the province and Ireland, an EU member, could have jeopardized the peace agreement.

But it remains to be seen whether the new terms will go far enough to end the political deadlock in Northern Ireland, where perceptions that the protocol has eased relations with Britain have angered many unionist communities.

Sunak is likely to talk about the fact that he has been given so-called “Stormont brakes”, which he said would allow Stormont – the regional assembly – to stop any “changes to EU goods rules that would have significant and lasting impacts on everyday life”. He said that would give London veto power over the new rules.

Von der Leyen said she hopes the brakes can be avoided if the two sides consult each other extensively when introducing new laws and regulatory changes.

DUP leader Geoffrey Donaldson said “significant progress” had been made but they would not rush into a decision. Another DUP lawmaker, Ian Paisley, told the BBC that the matter had not gone far enough, and that more talks were needed.

The European Research Group, which includes pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers, will work with lawyers to examine the details before making a ruling, a process that could take about a week.

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David Davis, the former Brexit secretary, said Sunak had “tremendous success in the negotiations”, despite speculation in Westminster that Boris Johnson could oppose a deal. A source close to the former prime minister said he is studying the proposal and thinking about it.

If the deal is accepted, the new changes will be implemented in stages over the next few years. A parliamentary vote will take place as soon as all parties have had time to consider it.

A victory would strengthen Sunak’s hold on his conservative party and enable him to move past the thorny issue on his agenda as he seeks to catch up with the opposition Labor Party, which is now well ahead in opinion polls, ahead of national elections expected in 2024.

If he fails, he is likely to face a revolt from the Eurosceptic wing of his party, reviving deep ideological divisions that have at times paralyzed the government since the vote to leave the European Union in 2016.

Sunak could have left the standoff unresolved, but officials in London and Belfast say he was eager to act ahead of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, which could entail a visit by US President Joe Biden.

Biden, who often speaks proudly of his Irish roots, on Monday welcomed the agreement as an “essential step” in ensuring that the peace from the Good Friday Agreement is preserved.

US officials had previously warned that any action that threatened the peace deal could hurt prospects for a trade deal between the United States and Britain.

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“I appreciate the efforts of leaders and officials on all sides who have worked tirelessly to find a way forward that protects Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market as well as the EU’s single market, for the benefit of all communities in Northern Ireland,” Biden said in a statement.

Sunak hopes a successful outcome will improve cooperation with the EU in areas outside Northern Ireland, including regulating financial services and helping stem the flow of migrants in small boats through the Channel.

Raul Rubarel, former Prime Minister Theresa May’s special adviser on Europe, said the new terms were much better than he had expected.

“It is worth noting that the European Union has moved in a big way,” he said on Twitter. “Credit where due. They seem to have listened and taken to heart the concerns of the UK, businesses and NI unionists.”


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