Inside the secret talks that broke Brexit deadlock on N Ireland

When Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the Brexit deal that reset Britain’s damaged relationship with the EU on Monday, it was the fruits of just about 4 months of diplomacy that started on the shores of the Purple Sea and ended within the shadow of Windsor Citadel.

Von der Leyen, European Fee president, referred to as the UK prime minister “Expensive Rishi” because the pair launched the “Windsor framework”, the settlement which goals to finish the bitter dispute over Northern Eire’s post-Brexit commerce regime.

Relations had been much more confrontational with Boris Johnson, the UK former prime minister who negotiated the Northern Eire protocol with the EU in 2019 and who has spent the final three years making an attempt to scrap it. “There was no belief in him right here,” recalled one EU official.

However when von der Leyen met Sunak on the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 7 2022, lower than a fortnight into the British chief’s premiership, one thing clicked. “They each realised they had been severe individuals who might do that collectively,” mentioned one British official.

British diplomats say the assembly on the fringes of the COP27 local weather change summit was pivotal after the confrontation and mutual contempt that characterised EU-UK relations throughout Johnson’s chaotic premiership.

Initially the dialog targeted on the battle in Ukraine and local weather change, two areas the place Britain and Brussels had been already co-operating.

Rishi Sunak meets Ursula von der Leyen through the COP27 local weather convention in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, in November © Steve Reigate/Getty Photographs

By the point the dialogue turned to the Northern Eire protocol — a problem bedevilled with rows about customs checks at Irish Sea ports and guidelines for chilled meat imports — officers from either side might see the temper shifting.

“They might see what they’d in widespread, what really counts,” mentioned an EU official. Tackling the stand-off in Northern Eire may not solely assist repair political and enterprise tensions within the area, it could additionally reboot the EU-UK relationship.

A number of the groundwork for a greater relationship was already being laid by James Cleverly, a jovial former Military reservist appointed as overseas secretary throughout Liz Truss’s transient premiership, who shortly acquired to know Maroš Šefčovič, the European Fee vice-president.

Šefčovič, the Brussels lead on the Northern Eire protocol, had been bruised in his earlier talks with Britain, notably his exchanges with former UK Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost. Cleverly needed to reassure the fee vice-president that this time, Britain was severe.

“We wished to know in the event that they nonetheless wished to punish us over Brexit,” mentioned one Cleverly ally. “They wished to know if we had been simply doing this for home consumption, in order that we might blame Brussels if issues didn’t work out. And we each wished to know if we might discuss candidly with out it leaking.”

British diplomats observe that Cleverly, not like his two predecessors on the Overseas Workplace — Truss and Dominic Raab — really appeared to love diplomacy. In Šefčovič he discovered a counterpart who shared his sense of humour.

To additional defuse tensions, Sunak quietly parked the Northern Eire protocol invoice — laws launched by Johnson to unilaterally rewrite the treaty with the EU — within the Home of Lords. “It was a loaded gun on the desk,” mentioned one senior EU diplomat. “We couldn’t discuss in these circumstances.”

Within the new 12 months, officers started holding common — and secret — talks in an obscure EU constructing in Brussels referred to as Philippe Le Bon, usually used for workplace capabilities.

17 February 2023: Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič welcomes British foreign secretary James Cleverly in Brussels
Fee vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, proper, welcomes British overseas secretary James Cleverly in Brussels © Johanna Geron/Reuters

British officers usually spent complete weeks in Brussels, generally negotiating into the early hours, making an attempt to agree methods to minimize commerce friction between Nice Britain and Northern Eire, which below Johnson’s deal remained a part of the EU single market and due to this fact partly below EU legislation.

“There have been orange partitions, soulless rooms with often-broken espresso machines,” mentioned one UK official. “We’d sit there battering away on issues just like the export of seed potatoes and vegetation for backyard centres.”

In January there was an important breakthrough on the sharing of commerce information, however at instances talks appeared near breaking down. Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU and now Sunak’s nationwide safety adviser, is alleged to have performed a key function in “calming nerves”.

Šefčovič nonetheless turned gloomy, and at one level this month instructed EU ambassadors the deal was “unravelling”, one EU diplomat mentioned. As lately as February 19 he warned in a gathering with Irish overseas minister Micheál Martin that the talks might fail, suggesting they open a bottle of whiskey to cushion the blow, mentioned one individual with information of the matter.

The EU lead within the intense, secret discussions — identified in Brexit parlance as “the tunnel” — was Stéphanie Riso, von der Leyen’s deputy chief of cupboard who had negotiated the unique protocol. “She is aware of it inside out,” mentioned an EU official.

The EU facet instantly recognised Sunak’s willingness to plunge into the small print of potential options. The prime minister, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is a self-confessed information nerd: throughout his time as chancellor he impressed officers along with his grasp of US rail freight statistics.

Whereas negotiators grappled with robust points such because the commerce in sausages and seed potatoes, probably the most delicate a part of the deal — and politically probably the most essential — was being put collectively at a really excessive stage and in circumstances of prime secrecy.

The choice to grant Stormont a say in new EU guidelines was considered by either side as important in bringing the Democratic Unionist get together on board and — hopefully — persuading Northern Eire’s largest pro-UK pressure to finish its boycott of the area’s meeting.

Sunak and von der Leyen mentioned the Stormont brake early on, based on UK officers, who added that even some negotiators didn’t know concerning the plan, which might require an modification to the unique treaty, regardless of the EU’s public refusal to renegotiate it.

Northern Eire secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a former MEP and staunch Brexiter, was key in convincing the fee to cede extra floor by explaining the sensitivities of the area’s politics, UK officers say.

Von der Leyen and Šefčovič determined to not transient nationwide capitals concerning the particulars of the negotiations, fearing that the thought would leak and playing — appropriately — that Brexit fatigue meant member states had little curiosity in micromanaging the negotiations. “They had been very relaxed so long as we safeguarded the interior market,” mentioned a fee official.

The agreement is announced at Windsor in front of portraits of King George V and the late Duke of Edinburgh
The settlement is introduced at Windsor on Monday in entrance of a portrait of King George V © Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Because of this, the small print remained secret till the settlement was introduced on Monday, with the thought of calling the deal the “Windsor framework” reached final week. Von der Leyen and Sunak made the announcement in entrance of a portrait of King George V, who inaugurated Northern Eire’s parliament in 1921 with an attraction for unity. The EU chief, controversially, had tea with King Charles after sealing the deal.

The settlement was hailed by US president Joe Biden and French president Emmanuel Macron, amid claims that it might revitalise the UK-EU relationship. Greater than 24 hours later, not a single Tory MP had publicly condemned the deal; the DUP was contemplating what to do subsequent.

David Lidington, former de facto deputy prime minister to Theresa Might, mentioned the deal confirmed the deserves of “working constructively with the EU, moderately than choose[ing] fights”. For Sunak and von der Leyen, the deal was broadly praised as a major political achievement.

Former prime minister Johnson, the joint writer of the Northern Eire protocol, was nowhere to be seen as Sunak introduced his deal to a packed Home of Commons. One cupboard minister instructed the FT: “This might all have been carried out months in the past, nevertheless it was him.

Extra reporting by Jim Pickard in London

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