Britain and the European Union have reached a new agreement to resolve the Northern Ireland Protocol, a key sticking point in the post-Brexit trading arrangement.
The deal, which came after weeks of negotiations, could avert a potential trade war between Britain and the EU and open the door to the restoration of Northern Ireland’s devolved government.
The new deal marks a high-risk strategy for British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak who has been looking to improve relations with Brussels – and the United States – without alienating pro-Brexit hard-liners in his Conservative Party.
Sunak announced the new deal at a press conference Monday with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Sunak agreed the terms with Von der Leyen as they met at a hotel west of London.
“I’m pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough,” he said in his statement. “Together we have changed the original protocol and are today announcing the new Windsor framework.”
The prime minister said the deal will preserve Northern Ireland’s place in the “family of nations” within the United Kingdom, and safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.
He said the agreement will ensure “smooth flow of trade within the UK,” adding that “burdensome customs bureaucracy will be scrapped.”
“We have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea,” he continued.
Sunak also said that members of Parliament will be given a vote on the deal “at the appropriate time.” However, it remains to be seen whether the prime minister can persuade his Eurosceptic MPs to back the new deal.
Von der Leyen called the new agreement a “new chapter” for the UK and EU’s relationship. “We can take pride in the fact we have delivered” on commitments made during the Brexit negotiations, she said.
However, the EU chief acknowledged that there existed difficulties in the bilateral relations.
“I also remember the two of us were honest with each other about the difficulties in our bilateral relationship and it was vital to put that on the right footing too.”
Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, shares a long border with Ireland, a member of the EU. How to arrange trade over the open border was one of the most difficult aspects of the Brexit negotiations when Britain left the EU in January 2020.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, according to which Northern Ireland remained within the EU’s single market so that goods could flow freely over the border to Ireland without checks.
This means Northern Ireland has to follow the bloc’s rules in relation to those movements.
However, some goods that go to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, including from England, Scotland and Wales, are checked when they arrive at the province’s ports.
The Northern Ireland Protocol has sparked persistent disagreement between the the two sides since it was agreed.
Critics, including Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), say the protocol undermines the province’s position within the rest of the UK as well as impacting trade.
Negotiations have been underway to ease the trading rules.
Sunak has sought amendments to the protocol, taking a less combative approach to engagement with the EU on the issue.
Speaking to the Sunday Times, the prime minister said he wanted to show that Brexit “works for every part of the United Kingdom,” adding, however, that “the idea that the EU can impose laws on Northern Ireland without them having any say isn’t acceptable.”
It remains to be seen whether it will go far enough to end the political deadlock in Northern Ireland and satisfy critics in Britain and the province.