As you’re reading this, Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen are getting ready for their joint presser in Windsor after their lunch-time “final talks” on the new deal for the Northern Ireland protocol. Sunak will then bring the news to his MPs with a statement in the Commons. A senior government source has confirmed an agreement has already been reached. “The deal is done”, they said.
Sunak has made a perilous bet – banking on the hope that his claims of winning “big concessions” from the EU will be enough to placate the hard-line Brexiteers on his backbenches. Legally, the deal doesn’t have to go through a vote in the Commons. But if his MPs resign en masse – like it was originally predicted, and now looks less likely to happen – it will cause him more than a headache. The prime minister is likely to go for a vote, but probably not now – to leave everyone with some time to digest the actual content of the deal.
But what are these alleged concessions? The squabble between the government and the EU was always about trade. The original Northern Ireland protocol avoided a hard border, but created a de-facto trade frontier between the UK and Northern Ireland. Businesses on both sides lamented the complexities of the checks and the delays they were causing to their commerce.
Sunak’s deal includes a system based on different lanes for products. Businesses exporting goods to Northern Ireland will go through the “green lane”, with limited checks. Those whose produce travels further, into the EU, will go through the “red lane”, in line with the checks required by the Union.
Another element – one on which Sunak has insisted a lot – is Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. Under the deal hammered out by Boris Johnson and his chief negotiator David Frost, Westminster was prevented from legislating on several issues in the province. Northern Ireland had to follow EU single market rules on state aid, VAT, alcohol duty and other taxation areas.
Sunak seems to have achieved a significant win from the EU. The Union has agreed to a “light-touch” approach, thus enabling Northern Ireland to follow Great Britain’s line on things like state aid and VAT, but leaving open for itself the possibility of intervening on the final decision on a case-by-case basis.
The last, perhaps most controversial point for the Conservative party, is the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Hard-line Tory Brexiteers absolutely loathe the fact that a European institution can make legal decisions about matters concerning Northern Ireland. The unionists in Northern Ireland have also set a red line on the role of the ECJ.
Sunak seems to have been able to negotiate a more flexible settlement. The EU would have to inform Westminster of any future regulations which would apply to Northern Ireland, and the government could object, opening up a conversation with the EU about whether that rule would actually work for the province. Disputes over the application of EU laws would be considered first and foremost by the courts in Northern Ireland, and then, if there’s a need to, by the ECJ.
Perhaps this is the best Sunak could have achieved. The prime minister is probably quite content with the progress he’s made. Now let’s see if the unionists in Northern Ireland and the most uncompromising Brexiteers are as happy as he is.