LONDON – British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Union leader Ursula von der Leyen are set to hold face-to-face talks, with expectations high they will seal a deal to resolve a thorny post-Brexit trade dispute.
That would mark a breakthrough after months of bitter wrangling that has soured U.K.-EU relations, sparked the collapse of the Belfast-based regional government and and threatened to set back Northern Ireland's decades-old peace process.
In a joint statement on Sunday the U.K. and the EU said European Commission President von der Leyen will travel to Britain on Monday so the leaders can work towards "shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Sunak’s office set out a tightly choreographed agenda for Monday suggesting a deal is all but done. It said the leaders’ lunchtime “final talks” would be followed by a meeting of the U.K. Cabinet, then, if there is a deal, by a joint news conference and a statement by Sunak to the House of Commons.
U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said earlier Sunday that the two sides were on the “cusp” of striking an agreement over trade rules known as the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member, the Republic of Ireland. When the U.K. left the bloc in 2020, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Instead there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. That angered British unionist politicians in Belfast, who say the new trade border in the Irish Sea undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
The Democratic Unionist Party collapsed Northern Ireland’s Protestant-Catholic power-sharing government a year ago in protest and has refused to return until the rules are scrapped or substantially rewritten.
Relations between the U.K. and the EU, severely tested during years of Brexit wrangling, chilled still further amid disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The British government introduced a bill that would let it unilaterally rip up parts of the Brexit agreement, a move the EU called illegal. The bloc accused the U.K. of failing to honor the legally binding treaty it had signed.
The mood between London and Brussels improved after Sunak, a pragmatic Brexit supporter, took office in October, replacing more belligerent predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
Striking a deal would let Sunak “get Brexit done” in a way that eluded Johnson, who won a landslide election victory on that very slogan in 2019, three years after British voters narrowly opted in a referendum to leave the bloc.
Johnson did lead the U.K. out of the now 27-nation EU in 2020, but with a divorce deal that left Northern Ireland still bound to some EU rules and standards in a way that caused headaches for businesses and upset Northern Ireland’s delicate political balance.
U.K. and EU negotiators have been inching towards a solution during weeks of intense talks, but any deal with the bloc carries political risk for Sunak. Hints of compromise towards the EU have sparked opposition from hard-line euroskeptics in Sunak’s governing Conservative Party, including Johnson.
The DUP also has warned it will oppose any deal that does not meet its demand for “significant, substantive change.”
A deal is likely to remove customs checks on the vast majority of goods moving between the U.K. and Northern Ireland.
The thorniest issue is the role of the European Court of Justice in resolving any disputes that arise over the rules. Britain and the EU agreed in their Brexit divorce deal to give the European court that authority, but the DUP and Conservative Brexiteers insist the court must have no jurisdiction in U.K. matters.
Sunak insisted a deal would meet unionist demands.
“As someone who believes in Brexit, voted for Brexit, campaigned for Brexit, I want to demonstrate that Brexit works and it works for every part of the United Kingdom,” he told the Sunday Times.
“There’s unfinished business on Brexit and I want to get the job done.”
Joanna Kozlowska in London contributed to this story.