On the first anniversary of Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, the European Union and the United Kingdom stage their reconciliation after Brexit, another example of the unity of the Western alliance against the Kremlin. Ursula von der Leyentravels this Monday to London with the aim of closing an agreement with Rishi Sunak on the thorny issue of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which has poisoned post-divorce relations for the past two years.
“The President of the European Commission and the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom have agreed continue the work in person in search of shared practical solutions for the range of complex issues raised by the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. To do this, President Von der Leyen will meet tomorrow (this Monday) with the Prime Minister in the United Kingdom,” the two parties have announced. in a brief joint statement.
“We have made significant progress. We can clearly see the finish line already. But in these types of negotiations, being close does not mean that it is done,” said last week the vice-president of the Commission responsible for Brexit, the Slovak Maros Sefcovic.
[Varios ministros de Rishi Sunak amenazan con dimitir por el acuerdo sobre Irlanda del Norte]
Since the resounding fall of Liz Truss and the rise to power of Rishi Sunak, the negotiations between Brussels and London on the Northern Ireland protocol have gained new momentum, albeit with maximum secrecy. In the United Kingdom a couple of weeks ago an imminent pact was announced, news that was received with great skepticism in the European Union. Especially since Sunak faces strong internal opposition.
A rejection that comes from both the most eurosceptic current of his own tory party, commanded by Truss and Boris Johnson; as for him Northern Irish Unionist Party DUP, which is blocking the formation of the regional government by demanding that the Northern Ireland protocol be amended or abolished. Sunak’s doubts before the enemies of the agreement have delayed the solution and could still make it shipwreck, according to European sources. What is certain is that the dialogue between London and Brussels has reached levels never seen before.
Where is the origin of the problem? The conflict stems from the type of hard Brexit that Boris Johnson chose, which has meant the UK’s exit from both the customs union and the single market. To avoid a physical border on the island of Ireland (which would jeopardize the Good Friday Peace Agreement), the then British Prime Minister approved a special status for Northern Irelandwhich is still linked to the rules of the EU internal market for goods.
That means, in practice, the border has been moved to the Irish Sea, with new customs and phytosanitary controls on products arriving at Northern Ireland ports from the island of Great Britain. The new border has angered Northern Irish unionists in particular, who charge that it endangers the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom.
prime minister @RishiSunak and I agreed to continue working in person towards shared, practical solutions under the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.
I will therefore meet with the Prime Minister tomorrow in the UK.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) February 26, 2023
What is the solution that Von der Leyen and Sunak have found? In Brussels, the level of secrecy is maximum, but in London the central pillars of the agreement have leaked, which would be three: the reduction and even suppression of customs and phytosanitary controls; the dilution of the role of the Court of Justice of the European Union as arbitrator of disputes; and more voice and vote to Northern Ireland when deciding the community rules that apply to it.
The British maintain that this agreement means in practice a rewrite of the protocol on Northern Irelandwhich is part of the divorce agreement that Brussels and London signed in November 2018. The EU has always said that this protocol is not open to negotiation, and that what it is about is improving its practical application.
As regards controls, the agreement consists of create two separate lanes, one red and one green. Products from Great Britain destined solely for Northern Ireland will travel through the green lane, with fewer phytosanitary controls and customs red tape. Some controls that would be applied in the red lane to those products likely to enter Ireland and therefore into the single European market.
Brussels maintains that the agreement reached with London to have access to the British database that monitors in real time of the transit of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland facilitates the surveillance and reduces the risks of illegal entry into the internal market.
The agreement between Sunak and Von der Leyen dilutes the role of the Luxembourg Court of Justice in resolving disputes over the Northern Ireland protocol, as required by the British. In the first instance, the Northern Irish courts will be responsible for settling disputes concerning the application of the rules. However, the CJEU retains the role of the highest decision-making body in the last instance, as the EU has always defended.
The British have further leaked that Northern Ireland will be able to apply the British rules on VAT and public aid, and not the European ones. An extreme that the Community Executive has avoided confirming.
In any case, the agreement between Von der Leyen and Sunak could still go under, especially on the British side. At the same time, the unity among the western allies Putin’s demand for war pushes the UK and the EU towards the pact. The anti-Kremlin front cannot now afford a trade conflict between Brussels and London. The solution will be seen in the next few days.