Rishi Sunak is due to meet EU leaders in Bavaria this week in a final push for a Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, amid warnings of a revolt by Conservative MPs if they judge the UK prime minister is ceding too much ground to Brussels.
Sunak is expected to hold talks with EU leaders on the margins of the Munich security conference to try to resolve the long-running dispute over Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trading arrangements.
French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen are scheduled to attend the summit, where the main focus will be the war in Ukraine.
Downing Street said “intensive scoping” of a Brexit deal was continuing, but the involvement of senior British ministers, including Sunak, was seen by some in London as a sign an agreement could be reached this month.
The putative accord would overhaul the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, part of Boris Johnson’s 2019 Brexit deal, by reducing trade friction between the region and Great Britain.
Under the deal, Northern Ireland remained part of the EU single market for goods, and the region’s pro-UK politicians and businesses have complained about the number of checks on products coming from Great Britain.
Senior British officials said a deal would include a continuing role for the European Court of Justice in overseeing Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements, although it would not be involved in the majority of legal cases.
For many of Sunak’s Eurosceptic MPs, ECJ jurisdiction over British territory is unacceptable. “The question is whether EU law binds the UK,” said David Jones, deputy chair of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.
Jones said a report in the Daily Telegraph that stated the ECJ would only be used as a court of last resort sounded like a “weather balloon” being floated by Downing Street to gauge Eurosceptic reaction.
“The problem with weather balloons these days is that they tend to be shot down,” he added. “We can’t have a state of affairs where we are subject to the ECJ, whether directly or indirectly.”
Asked whether the ERG had sufficient MPs to stop any Brexit deal that did not restore “full sovereignty” to all parts of the UK, Jones said: “We have enough.”
Sunak will have to take a decision on whether to confront elements of his own party to secure a deal, which would, in turn, significantly improve relations with the EU.
An early “win” from an accord would be an expected agreement by the EU to readmit British scientists and universities to the €95bn Horizon Europe research programme, seen as a vital element of pan-European collaboration.
Meanwhile, Sunak would be expected to drop the government’s Northern Ireland protocol bill, which would unilaterally scrap the crucial parts of Johnson’s Brexit deal affecting the region.
Some in the British government believe “sovereignty purists” in the Conservative party are taking a tougher line on any overhaul of the protocol than Northern Ireland’s pro-UK Democratic Unionist party.
The DUP, which is boycotting the region’s devolved government in protest at the protocol, set “seven tests” for assessing any deal, but did not explicitly mention the ECJ. One British official said: “There’s a risk the ERG out-DUP the DUP.”
An critical part of the deal would be the creation of a “green lane” at ports in the region, where goods coming from Great Britain and intended for sale in Northern Ireland would be subject to minimal checks.
Goods from Great Britain and destined for sale in the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the EU would go through the “red lane” and be subject to closer inspections.
An EU official said the two sides were “very close” to reaching an agreement on the proposed green lane. However, final details to be hammered out include the question of labelling goods for sale in Northern Ireland only, which is firmly opposed by some supermarkets and unionist politicians.
“This is in the hands of Sunak,” said the EU official.
Another EU official said London and Brussels were drawing up an explanatory document that would play down the role of the ECJ in Northern Ireland’s affairs.
The official said the ECJ would only interpret matters on single market law, and about 90 per cent of complaints over non-compliance with the rules in the bloc never reach Luxembourg.
The DUP said: “The checks on the Irish Sea border are the symptom of the underlying problem, namely, that Northern Ireland is subject to a different set of laws imposed upon us by a foreign entity without any say or vote by any elected representative of the people of Northern Ireland.”
The DUP has said it will not return to Stormont, which it has been boycotting since elections last May, until there is a deal that meets its demands.