Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen both spoke of a “new chapter” to describe the significance of their rewrite to the Northern Ireland Protocol, but those words understate the step change in relations between Britain and the European Union. Officials from both sides say the vital shift in the negotiations came when they began trusting each other after years of animosity over Brexit – although the trust deficit was mainly on the UK side.
“Goes to show how much you gain by trust in European relations rather than zero-sum game of past governments,” the EU’s former chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier tweeted on Tuesday.
The key factor was Mr Sunak. Although a fervent advocate for Brexit during the 2016 referendum, he took a different tack from his predecessor Boris Johnson when it came to negotiating with the EU.
Unlike Mr Johnson, who quit as Prime Minister after three years in September, and even Liz Truss, whose premiership lasted just 49 days, Mr Sunak approached the challenge of the Northern Ireland Protocol as “a problem to be solved rather than an itch to be scratched,” according to one EU official.
The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, introduced by Mr Johnson, was particularly disruptive as it allowed the UK to unilaterally override its treaty obligations. Far from handing London negotiating leverage, as some hardline Brexiters were still claiming on Tuesday, it did the opposite, blowing away the little trust that remained, and shattering hopes of an amicable negotiation.
But since coming to office in October, Mr Sunak has eschewed the grandstanding about Brexit and jibes about the EU that characterised Mr Johnson’s approach, recognising that threats would be counterproductive and constructive dialogue would deliver results. “Obviously you have this sequence of prime ministers,” a senior British official admitted on Tuesday. “The Sunak government was not in itself directly responsible for the Bill, and I think that created a bit of political space.”
By temperament and character, Mr Sunak is very different to Mr Johnson. His is much closer in style to Ms von der Leyen and moved quickly last October to show her that he wanted to turn the page on the bombast of the Johnson and Truss eras.
Notably, he sought a workable solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol, asking his negotiators to quietly work with their counterparts in the Commission to hammer out a deal. That secrecy suited the technocratic Commission too (indeed, EU ambassadors were only briefed on the details at the same time as Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen’s press conference on Monday).
All this was a welcome change for Ms von der Leyen and her team, but after seeing Mr Johnson renege on his deals again and again, they still needed proof that the UK could be trusted to keep its word.
A data-sharing deal struck in early January allowing the EU real-time access to the UK’s IP systems for trade data helped build confidence. So did the consultations the EU offered on its energy package at the end of last year. In the Protocol negotiations, the UK recognised early on that the EU Court of Justice would be the ultimate arbiter on Single Market issues. And the much-vaunted “Stormont brake” announced in the package is already being walked back as an “emergency brake” or veto: while the “last resort” mechanism allows the UK to stop updated EU law in Northern Ireland, that block could in turn be challenged by the Commission.
But the most important factor driving the negotiations was the simple fact that the two sides were ready to work in good faith. Indeed, for all the legal text changes to the Northern Ireland Protocol, perhaps the most significant part of the new Windsor framework is the dialogue. “It’s also the depth and breadth of these new consultation arrangements … which provides a solid basis for a constructive dynamic,” said one UK insider.