Rishi Sunak has launched a high-stakes gamble to seal a deal with Brussels over Northern Ireland, making a surprise visit to Belfast as Tory Eurosceptics warned he was going too far to accommodate the EU.
The UK prime minister is seeking to win backing from Northern Irish parties for an outline deal with the EU to resolve the two-year old dispute over the region’s post-Brexit trade. Unionists, Conservatives and businesses complain the current arrangements have impeded business with the mainland.
Sunak will hold talks in Belfast before heading to Munich on Saturday, where, on the margins of a security conference, he is expected to meet EU leaders to try to settle the damaging Brexit dispute.
But he faces a backlash from Eurosceptic Tory MPs if — as expected — the deal on the so-called Northern Ireland protocol leaves EU judges with a role over the region.
David Jones, deputy chair of the pro-Brexit Tory European Research Group, said Sunak had not discussed the putative agreement with his group, arguing that giving EU judges any jurisdiction in the UK “would not be acceptable to any other country in the world”.
Jones added: “There would be general dissatisfaction with the leadership of the Conservative party, which would not bode well for the leadership.”
Sunak acknowledges the risk that senior Eurosceptics — including former prime minister Boris Johnson — could turn on him over an agreement with the EU.
He will decide whether to press ahead with the gambit over the weekend, knowing that a deal could enrage some Tory MPs but help to rebuild relations with the EU, Britain’s biggest trading partner.
As expectations of a deal grow, Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s Brexit negotiator, is set to meet James Cleverly, foreign secretary, over lunch in Brussels on Friday. Šefčovič will then brief ambassadors from the EU’s 27 member states at a private meeting called at short notice.
Any deal would need to be backed by member nations, but there has been broad support for the changes proposed by the commission.
Sunak will first try to sell the deal to the pro-UK Democratic Unionist party in Northern Ireland, which is boycotting the region’s assembly at Stormont in protest at the protocol, as well as meeting other political leaders and business figures.
Jones said that unless a deal on the protocol persuades the DUP to return to the power-sharing executive, it will turn out to have been “a futile exercise”.
The British government has expressed confidence the agreement would win the support of the DUP, which has been less exercised than Tory Eurosceptics about the role of EU judges.
The outline deal hammered out over months between the UK and the EU seeks to reduce the border frictions at Irish Sea ports on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
It would do so by the creation of a “green lane” for goods intended to remain in Northern Ireland and a “red lane” for those destined for the Irish Republic and the rest of the EU single market, which would still be subject to checks.
The EU insists it must have oversight of trade in Northern Ireland, which under the Johnson Brexit deal remained in the single market for goods when the rest of the UK left the bloc.
The European Court of Justice, which enforces the rules of the single market, is expected to retain a role, even if both sides will insist most cases will be settled without reference to the justices in Luxembourg.
Downing Street said talks with the EU were “ongoing” and that ministers were in contact with stakeholders “to ensure any solution fixes the practical problems on the ground, meets our overarching objectives, and safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s internal market”.
Political parties were due to meet Sunak on Friday morning with little information about the contents of any deal. “Truthfully, I think it’s still watertight,” said one business leader.
“Northern Irish parties are already feeling aggrieved at being sidelined so if it’s a ‘take it or leave it’ message the prime minister is here to deliver, I wouldn’t be surprised if they kick mud and complexity into the mix and send him back with further problems,” said Katy Hayward, a professor at Queen’s College Belfast and an expert on Brexit.
“The engagement really needs to happen jointly: UK, EU and all parties,” she said.