Northern Ireland Protocol: What to expect from the VDL-Sunak meeting

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak are on Monday expected to announce a deal over the contentious Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The two leaders should meet at about 12:00 CET in the south-eastern English county of Berkshire, where Windsor is located, with the Commission president and King Charles III also slatted to meet in the afternoon.

“I’m looking forward to turning a page and opening a new chapter with our partner and friend,” von der Leyen said upon arrival in the UK on Monday.

A press conference is believed to take place at around 16:00 CET, while EU ambassadors will convene at the same time for an informal COREPER meeting to discuss the deal.

Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said ahead of the meeting that he “very much welcome(s)” it.

“We should acknowledge the level of engagement between the UK Gov, the European Commission and the NI parties in recent months,” he added on Twitter.

The von der Leyen-Sunak meeting is the second one in less than two weeks with the first held on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.

It also comes after a flurry of cross-Channel talks over the past few weeks between Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s main Brexit negotiator, and his British interlocutor, Foreign Secretary James Cleverly. 

Šefčovič said last week that “we clearly can see the finishing line.”

Sunak has meanwhile also travelled to Northern Ireland to gather support for the deal.

The region has been without an executive since the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) pulled out of the power-sharing agreement over the Protocol in February 2022. It argues that the treaty undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland has remained within the EU’s Customs Union for goods meaning checks must be carried out between the two sides of the UK. 

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, left, and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, Nov. 7, 2022.

This de-facto border in the Irish Sea was seen as the best way to prevent the erection of a border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with some fearing a return of deadly sectarian violence that was ended 25 years ago with the Good Friday Agreement. 

The DUP has issued a list of “tests” it says must be fulfilled for it to support any deal. These include“no checks on goods going from Northern Ireland to Great Britain or from Great Britain to Northern Ireland” and “no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”

The compromise believed to have been found is the creation of a two-track customs system with a so-called “green lane” for goods exported from Great Britain and intended to stay in Northern Ireland that would reduce checks and red tape.

This was made possible after the two sides struck a data-sharing deal in early January allowing the EU access to the UK’s IP systems for trade veri.

Additionally, some new language on dispute resolution is widely expected. Brussels and London have been at loggerheads over who should arbitrate any future dispute, with the EU adamant it should be the European Court of Justice which London firmly rejects.

Currently, the EU can take action through the European Court of Justice against the UK, as if it were an EU member state, if it believes EU law is not respected in Northern Ireland. 

A possible compromise would be to model the court’s role over the Protocol on its remit over the EU’s relationship with Switzerland. This would mean the creation of an independent arbitration panel that would make the final decision but could refer questions on EU law to the ECJ for an opinion. 

Another possible avenue for compromise would be for other arbitration routes with the ECJ retaining the role of final arbiter should these fail to settle the dispute.

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