Rishi Sunak’s Camaraderie with Ursula Von der Leyen heals the wounds of a former diplomatic battle 

  • Rishi Sunak and Ursula Von der Leyen seek to open a new chapter in EU-UK relations by improving the current post-Brexit protocol on Northern Ireland.
  • The new protocol assures the governance, movement and political well-being of Northern Irish citizens. 
  • Von der Leyen aims to protect the EU Single Market, develop joint legal cooperation, and guarantee fair and open competition for both sides.
Sunak and Von der Leyen
27/02/2023. Windsor, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak welcomes the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor to discuss the Northern Ireland talks. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

Why is Sunak in camaredrie with Von der Leyen? 

Answer: Sunak aims to unblock the current bureaucratic and legal system in Northern Ireland and develop bilateral relations with the European Union.

Last February, Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen agreed on the Windsor Framework to develop both actors’ roles on the island. This new agreement seeks to improve the trading rules for Northern Ireland (NI) and open a new chapter in EU-UK relations, a long-awaited event in the post-Brexit era. 

All previous attempts to reformulate British relations with the European Union have resulted in confusing and unclear systems, some even influencing the resignation of former PM Theresa May. With this new Framework, both leaders have shown their compromise to stabilise their relationship, attempting to refurbish and optimise the current flawed Protocol. Focused on the trade and movement regulations in Northern Ireland, it offers specific solutions for its special position within the UK and the European Single Market.

Sunak’s attitude towards the European Union has raised some concerns within his party, as well as among many Brexiters, who see this as a step backwards towards an ‘independent’ Britain. At the same time, many of the agreements within the framework ease some of the ongoing European limitations in trading and international law. 

What does Rishi Sunak want?  

Answer: Sunak wishes to further improve relations with the European Union, both in the understanding of differences as well as in cooperative matters.

Among the understanding of differences, Sunak wants to facilitate the movement within the British Isles, breaking many of the current Northern Irish restrictions on goods and people movement. As a consequence of the lack of new proper legislation and the island’s position as a land border, many European checks are still in place after Brexit. Even goods travelling within British borders require extraordinary paperwork and time, and they are required to meet European conditions. This new deal aims to reduce these former inconsistencies, as well as to reshape the legal basis of EU-UK relations. 

Regarding cooperative matters, the new Framework allows both sides to further develop bilateral relations and partnerships by bringing to an end many of the legal and technical inconsistencies that previous protocols created. On the basis of distrust and confrontation, former prime ministers failed to develop a competent plan for the future of EU-UK relations. Rishi Sunak marks a transition from that position. Instead, he has opted for an approach to his European counterparts with the ambition of expanding trading agreements and border cooperation. 

Sadly for him, it could take a long time for the Framework to enter into force since both parties must introduce and adopt the necessary legislation to accommodate it. Sunak aims to obtain political support by bringing the plan to the House of Commons, something he is not required to do by law, but that could offer approval from the opposition and his own party.

What does Von der Leyen want? 

Answer: Ursula Von der Leyen has asserted her position towards the UK, protecting the EU Single Market and developing joint legal cooperation.

Since becoming President of the European Commission in 2019, Von der Leyen has already seen three different Prime Ministers offer similar approaches to the post-EU governance and diplomacy of the Isles. As such, she has seen many inefficient and failed plans, such as the 2019 ‘backstop‘ protocol for Northern Ireland, where the United Kingdom had to maintain ‘full alignment’ with the EU due to the lack of agreed solutions. As a result, from Boris Johnson to Liz Truss, foreign policy was usually excluded from Brexit trade agreements. 

While the deal would, in essence, remove the inner border between Britain and Northern Ireland running through the Irish Sea, this agreement also seeks to reshape the region’s role within the EU-UK relations. As part of the deal, Von der Leyen has committed to the loosening of European paperwork and norms, reducing up to 97% of the total European regulations that were in place in Northern Ireland. While this directly implies less influence on Britain, it at the same time guarantees a baseline for the future of their relations.

As an example of this, Von der Leyen was able to guarantee the Court of Justice of the European Union to remain acting as the sole entity able to mediate in the application of EU laws. Also, a new ‘defence mechanism’ has been established to assure the governance and political well-being of the Northern Irish citizens. Known as the Stormont Brake, it will act similarly to the Petition of Concern in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. It provides the NI’s parliament with ‘veto power’ to the introduction of any European Law that may have  “a significant impact specific to everyday life”. 

Von der Leyen’s priority during the Brexit negotiations has been to guarantee fair and open competition for both sides. These new changes fall in line with it, and she remains a strong figure in the middle of the EU-UK negotiations.

What is Rishi Sunak doing? 

Answer: Sunak’s diplomatic position brings expected promises and solutions to the Northern Irish question. 

Rishi Sunak’s plan supposes a step towards the legal and customary sovereignty of the United Kingdom and is focused on two main areas. First, the changes in customs regulations establish two new lanes (the green and red lanes). The former includes operators and businesses who do not intend to move goods from Great Britain into Ireland (and the EU’s Single Market) and thus, will be excluded from European checks. The latter will be reserved for those goods heading to the EU’s Single Market that, therefore, are bound by EU checks. 

Secondly, paperwork regarding agri-foods businesses and products also see a reduction of inspections and certifications, as well as a reduction in the EU consumer and public health laws that most companies had to previously comply with. 

The history of Northern Ireland and its relation to the United Kingdom is one of trouble and compromises. As a result of the prolonged fighting between Irish Unionists and Nationalists, British law currently grants NI a sovereign government with little central interference. As such, any national project, such as the new Windsor Framework, raises some concerns and considerations. However, with the aforementioned Stormont Brake, Rishi Sunak also intends to provide the Northern Irish institutions with a mechanism that allows them to have a say in further decisions affecting the region. 

The negotiations with the European Union seem to have found opposition within some Tories and Brexiters, with former Prime Minister Boris Johnson finding it “very difficult” to vote for the Framework. Sunak will now have to face the same fate as his predecessors and defend his position and the opportunities for Northern Ireland with the new Framework. However, apart from some discordant voices, it has already found the support of opposing parties.

Who is winning and what about you?

Answer: Sunak counts on the support of the majority of Parliamentary groups, while Von der Leyen remains encouraged to pursue further actions.

While the biggest threat to Rishi Sunak’s Framework was its debate in the House of Commons, most parties have welcomed and supported the changes. For example, Labour leader Keir Starmer believes it will bring an end to the political standoff in Northern Ireland, while many of the main political parties in Northern Ireland such as Sinn Fein focus their concerns on the practical applicability of the Stormont brake.

In contrast, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the main supporter of Brexit in Northern Ireland, announced their decision to vote in favour of the new framework. As usual with any new legislation, Rishi’s challenge will be to properly apply the new changes to the British legal system and guarantee the interests of NI’s political institutions. 

On the other side of the sea, Ursula Von der Leyen can consider her meeting with the British Prime Minister a success. In the past, she has firmly enforced the United Kingdom to respect their Brexit agreements, taking legal action against Boris Johnson’s attempts to alter their protocol. Von der Leyen has, once again, reinforced the European diplomatic ability and political prowess, remaining convinced of the profitable gains of healthy EU-UK relations, reflected in her adamant beliefs in a politically and economically strong Eurozone. 

Alberto Campos Moya

Research & Analysis Member