Inside the secret talks that emerged from the Brexit deadlock in Northern Ireland

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

Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, called the British Prime Minister “Dear Rishi” as the couple began “Windsor Structure”an agreement that aims to end bitter disputes over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade regime.

Relations have been much more confrontational with Boris Johnson, the former British prime minister who negotiated a Northern Ireland protocol with the EU in 2019 and who has been trying to back out of it for the past three years. “He was not trusted here,” recalled one of the EU representatives.

But when von der Leyen met with Sunak in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 7, 2022, less than two weeks after the British leader’s premiership, something clicked. “They both realized that they are serious people who can do this together,” said one British official.

British diplomats say the meeting on the sidelines of the COP27 climate change summit has been pivotal after the confrontation and mutual disdain that characterized EU-UK relations during Johnson’s chaotic premiership.

Initially, the conversation focused on the war in Ukraine and climate change, two areas in which the UK and Brussels have already collaborated.

Rishi Sunak meets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during the COP27 climate conference on November 7, 2022 in Sharm El Sheikh.

Rishi Sunak meets with Ursula von der Leyen during the COP27 climate conference in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt in November © Steve Reigate/Getty Images

By the time the discussion turned to the Northern Ireland protocol – a matter complicated by disputes over customs checks at Irish Sea ports and rules for the entry of chilled meat – officials on both sides noticed that the mood had changed.

“They could see what they had in common, what really mattered,” the EU official said. Overcoming the standoff in Northern Ireland could not only help to remove political and business tensions in the region, but also reset relations between the EU and the UK.

The groundwork for improved relations has already been laid by James Cleverly, a jovial former army reservist appointed foreign minister during Liz Trouss’s brief tenure as prime minister, who quickly became acquainted with Maros Sefcovic, vice president of the European Commission.

Šefčović, Brussels’ head of the Northern Ireland protocol, has been bruised in his previous talks with the UK, notably in an exchange with Britain’s former Brexit negotiator Lord David Frost. Skillfully had to reassure the vice-president of the commission that Britain was serious this time.

“We wanted to know if they still want to punish us for Brexit,” one of Cleverly’s allies said. “They wanted to know if we were only doing this for domestic consumption so we could blame Brussels if things didn’t work out. And we both wanted to know if we could speak frankly without leaking.”

British diplomats note that Cleverley, unlike his two predecessors in the Foreign Office – Trouss and Dominic Raab – really loved diplomacy. In Šefčović he found a colleague who shared his sense of humor and love of BBC political comedy. yes minister.

To further defuse the situation, Sunak quietly parked. Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – a bill introduced by Johnson for a unilateral rewriting of the treaty with the EU – in the House of Lords. “There was a loaded gun on the table,” said a senior EU diplomat. “We couldn’t talk under those circumstances.”

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

17 February 2023: Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic welcomes British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley in Brussels.

Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic (right) greets British Foreign Secretary James Cleverley in Brussels © Johanna Geron/Reuters

British officials often spent whole weeks in Brussels, sometimes negotiating until dawn, trying to agree on ways to reduce trade tensions between the UK and Northern Ireland, which under the Johnson Agreement remained part of the EU single market and therefore partially subject to EU law.

“There were orange walls, soulless rooms with frequently broken coffee machines,” said one British official. “We would sit and fight for things like exporting seed potatoes and plants for garden centers.”

In January, there was a major breakthrough in trade data sharing, but at times it seemed that the negotiations were close to failure. Sir Tim Barrow, the former British ambassador to the EU and now Sunak’s national security adviser, is said to have played a key role in calming nerves.

Šefčović, though, turned grim and once this month told EU ambassadors that the deal was “falling apart,” as one EU diplomat put it. As recently as Feb. 19, in a meeting with Ireland’s foreign minister, Michael Martin, he warned that negotiations could fail and offered to open a bottle of whiskey to cushion the blow, said one person with knowledge of the matter.

Leading the EU in the tense, secret discussions known in Brexit jargon as the “tunnel” was Stephanie Riso, deputy chief of von der Leyen’s cabinet, who negotiated the initial protocol. “She knows it inside out,” the EU official said.

The EU side immediately acknowledged Sunak’s willingness to delve into the details of possible solutions. Prime Minister, former Goldman Sachs banker, Self-proclaimed data nerd: During his tenure as chancellor, he impressed officials with his understanding of US railroad statistics.

While the negotiators were dealing with such complex issues as the sale of sausages and seed potatoes, the most sensitive part of the deal – and the most politically important – was negotiated at a very high level and in the strictest secrecy.

Decision on Give Stormont a say in the new EU rules was seen by both sides as critical to bringing the Democratic Unionist Party on board and hopefully persuaded Northern Ireland’s biggest pro-British force to end its boycott of the regional caucus.

Sunak and von der Leyen discussed the Stormont brake early on, according to UK officials, who added that even some negotiators were unaware of the plan, which would require amending the original treaty despite the EU’s public refusal to renegotiate it.

Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris, a former MEP and staunch Brexiteer, played a key role in persuading the commission to give up more ground by explaining the sensitivity of regional politics, UK officials say.

Von der Leyen and Šefčović chose not to inform national capitals of the details of the talks, fearing the idea would leak out, and bet — rightly so — that Brexit fatigue meant member states had little interest in micromanaging the talks. “They were very relaxed while we were protecting the domestic market,” a spokesperson for the commission said.

The agreement was announced at Windsor in front of portraits of King George V and the late Duke of Edinburgh.

The agreement was announced Monday at Windsor in front of a portrait of King George V © Chris J. Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

As a result, details were kept under wraps until the deal was announced on Monday, with the idea of ​​​​calling the deal the “Windsor Structure” reached last week. Von der Leyen and Sunak made the statement in front of a portrait of King George V, who opened the Northern Ireland Parliament in 1921 with a call for unity. The head of the EU, oddly enough, Tea with King Charles after the conclusion of the deal.

The agreement was welcomed by US President Joe Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron amid claims it could revive UK-EU relations. More than 24 hours later, no Tory MP publicly condemned the deal; DUP considered what to do next.

David Lidington, Theresa May’s former de facto deputy prime minister, said the deal showed the virtues of “working constructively with the EU, not choosing[ing] fights.” For Sunak and von der Leyen, the deal was widely hailed as a significant political achievement.

Former Prime Minister Johnson, co-sponsor of the Northern Ireland Protocol, was nowhere to be seen when Sunak announced his deal in front of a packed House of Commons. One cabinet minister told the FT: “All this could have been done a few months ago, but it was to him

Supplementary report by Jim Picard in London

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