When Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen unveiled the Brexit deal that reset Britain’s broken relationship with the EU on Monday, it was the culmination of almost four months of diplomacy that began on the shores of the Red Sea and ended in the shadow of Windsor Castle.

Von der Leyen, European Commission president, called the UK prime minister “Dear Rishi” as the pair launched the “Windsor framework”, the agreement which aims to end the bitter dispute over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade regime.

Relations had been far more confrontational with Boris Johnson, the UK former prime minister who negotiated the Northern Ireland protocol with the EU in 2019 and who has spent the last three years trying to scrap it. “There was no trust in him here,” recalled one EU official.

But when von der Leyen met Sunak at the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 7 2022, less than a fortnight into the British leader’s premiership, something clicked. “They both realised they were serious people who could do this together,” said one British official.

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

Initially the conversation focused on the war in Ukraine and climate change, two areas where Britain and Brussels were already co-operating.

By the time the discussion turned to the Northern Ireland protocol — an issue bedevilled with rows about customs checks at Irish Sea ports and rules for chilled meat imports — officials from both sides could see the mood shifting.

“They could see what they had in common, what actually counts,” said an EU official. Tackling the stand-off in Northern Ireland might not only help fix political and business tensions in the region, it would also reboot the EU-UK relationship.

Some of the groundwork for a better relationship was already being laid by James Cleverly, a jovial former Army reservist appointed as foreign secretary during Liz Truss’s brief premiership, who quickly got to know Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president.

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

“We wanted to know if they still wanted to punish us over Brexit,” said one Cleverly ally. “They wanted to know if we were just doing this for domestic consumption, so that we could blame Brussels if things didn’t work out. And we both wanted to know if we could talk candidly without it leaking.”

British diplomats note that Cleverly, unlike his two predecessors at the Foreign Office — Truss and Dominic Raab — actually seemed to like diplomacy. In Šefčovič he found a counterpart who shared his sense of humour.

To further defuse tensions, Sunak quietly parked the Northern Ireland protocol bill — legislation introduced by Johnson to unilaterally rewrite the treaty with the EU — in the House of Lords. “It was a loaded gun on the table,” said one senior EU diplomat. “We couldn’t talk in those circumstances.”

In the new year, officials began holding regular — and secret — talks in an obscure EU building in Brussels called Philippe Le Bon, often used for office functions.

British officials often spent entire weeks in Brussels, sometimes negotiating into the early hours, trying to agree ways to lessen trade friction between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which under Johnson’s deal remained part of the EU single market and therefore partly under EU law.

“There were orange walls, soulless rooms with often-broken coffee machines,” said one UK official. “We’d sit there battering away on things like the export of seed potatoes and plants for garden centres.”

In January there was a crucial breakthrough on the sharing of trade data, but at times talks seemed close to breaking down. Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU and now Sunak’s national security adviser, is said to have played a key role in “calming nerves”.

Šefčovič nonetheless became gloomy, and at one point this month told EU ambassadors the deal was “unravelling”, one EU diplomat said. As recently as February 19 he warned in a meeting with Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin that the talks could fail, suggesting they open a bottle of whiskey to cushion the blow, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

The EU lead in the intense, secret discussions — known in Brexit parlance as “the tunnel” — was Stéphanie Riso, von der Leyen’s deputy chief of cabinet who had negotiated the original protocol. “She knows it inside out,” said an EU official.

The EU side immediately recognised Sunak’s willingness to plunge into the details of potential solutions. The prime minister, a former Goldman Sachs banker, is a self-confessed data nerd: during his time as chancellor he impressed officials with his grasp of US rail freight statistics.

While negotiators grappled with tough issues such as the trade in sausages and seed potatoes, the most sensitive part of the deal — and politically the most crucial — was being put together at a very high level and in conditions of top secrecy.

The decision to grant Stormont a say in new EU rules was viewed by both sides as critical in bringing the Democratic Unionist party on board and — hopefully — persuading Northern Ireland’s largest pro-UK force to end its boycott of the region’s assembly.

Sunak and von der Leyen discussed the Stormont brake early on, according to UK officials, who added that even some negotiators did not know about the plan, which would require an amendment to the original treaty, despite the EU’s public refusal to renegotiate it.

Northern Ireland secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a former MEP and staunch Brexiter, was key in convincing the commission to cede more ground by explaining the sensitivities of the region’s politics, UK officials say.

Von der Leyen and Šefčovič decided not to brief national capitals about the details of the negotiations, fearing that the idea would leak and gambling — correctly — that Brexit fatigue meant member states had little interest in micromanaging the negotiations. “They were very relaxed as long as we safeguarded the internal market,” said a commission official.

As a result, the details remained secret until the agreement was announced on Monday, with the idea of calling the deal the “Windsor framework” reached last week. Von der Leyen and Sunak made the announcement in front of a portrait of King George V, who inaugurated Northern Ireland’s parliament in 1921 with an appeal for unity. The EU chief, controversially, had tea with King Charles after sealing the deal.

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

David Lidington, former de facto deputy prime minister to Theresa May, said the deal showed the merits of “working constructively with the EU, rather than pick[ing] fights”. For Sunak and von der Leyen, the deal was widely praised as a significant political achievement.

Former prime minister Johnson, the joint author of the Northern Ireland protocol, was nowhere to be seen as Sunak announced his deal to a packed House of Commons. One cabinet minister told the FT: “This could all have been done months ago, but it was him.

Additional reporting by Jim Pickard in London

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