Sunak to meet Von der Leyen amid hopes of Northern Ireland protocol deal

Agreement in principle believed to be in closing stages with announcement expected next week

Rishi Sunak is to meet the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, over the weekend, raising hopes of an imminent deal to end the protracted Northern Ireland protocol dispute.

They are expected to meet on the sidelines of an international security conference in Munich that will also be attended by EU leaders including the German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, and the French president, Emmanuel Macron.

Talks to solve the dispute over the Brexit trading arrangements have intensified over the past week and it is thought an agreement in principle is at the closing stages.

UK sources say an announcement has been pencilled in for next week, possibly Tuesday, if the remaining issues can be resolved.

If loose ends cannot be tied up over the weekend, the schedule will be moved back. Sources say both sides are keen to present a “voluntary agreement” and avoid slipping back into the era of threats and counter-threats.

A breakthrough has already been made on reducing checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, with a “green lane” involving no customs declarations being proposed for food and farm produce destined for Northern Irish supermarkets, corner shops, hospitals, schools and prisons and other public settings.

Negotiators have agreed that products for retail should go through this “green” lane, with discussions continuing on how to deal with wholesalers who supply to independent shops and hospitality.

Talks are also continuing on how to deal with “intermediary” goods, including components which may end up in finished products destined for sale in the EU’s single market.

A new path has also been agreed in principle on governance and the role of the European court of justice (ECJ) in dispute resolution, a source of considerable political problems for Sunak with the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) and hardline Brexiters in the European Research Group (ERG) of MPs.

It is thought this path includes the creation of a new arbitration panel and the involvement of Northern Ireland courts in devolved matters, including food and agriculture health standards.

One of Sunak’s biggest challenges is how to quell any potential rebellion headed by the ERG, which wants the protocol scrapped altogether and folded into the wider trade and cooperation agreement with the EU.

The Irish former foreign minister Simon Coveney has said the best deal is a “nil-all draw” where nobody has won and nobody has lost.

Insiders say they hope the creation of the panel will address ERG concerns, particularly as this was mooted in a confidential paper by the group’s former chair, the Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker.

It is also notable that the Northern Ireland secretary, Chris Heaton-Harris, another former leader of the ERG, has been involved in the negotiations from the start, accompanying the foreign secretary, James Cleverly, in all talks with the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič.

The panel would involve legal representatives from the EU and the UK, and include a mechanism to give the ECJ a role in advising on matters of EU law.

It is not known if the key question over the continued application of EU law in Northern Ireland will be resolved to the satisfaction of the ERG or the DUP. The DUP has set out seven tests for agreeing to any new deal, including an assurance of “no new regulatory borders” between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.


Lisa O'Carroll and Jessica Elgot

The GuardianTramp

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