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EU chief says Sunak’s Northern Ireland deal fails to take back full control in leaked recording

Rishi Sunak has hailed his new Brexit deal as one that 'takes back control' of Northern Ireland - POOL

Rishi Sunak has hailed his new Brexit deal as one that ‘takes back control’ of Northern Ireland – POOL

As Rishi Sunak hailed his Brexit deal that “takes back control” of Northern Irelandthe European Union’s chief negotiator told a private meeting in Brussels a vastly different story of who controls the province.

Debriefing the European Parliament’s Brexit committees on the freshly minted “Windsor Framework”Maros Sefcovic said the Prime Minister’s pact was simply designed to avoid negative headlines in the British press, and would not hand back full sovereignty over the region.

The burly Slovak diplomat, not one to bite his tongue, poured cold water over any suggestion Britain had secured an effective veto over new European laws that affect Northern Ireland, and insisted the bloc’s top court would still rule supreme.

‘Stormont Brake is very much limited in scope’

Of the Stormont Brake, which Mr. Sunak claims he will allow Northern Ireland politicians a veto on new EU rules applying to the province, Mr Sefcovic assured MEPs that Brussels would have powers to react to any decision with trade sanctions, such as customs levies against British exports.

The mechanism was created to address Unionist concerns about the imposition of Brussels regulations over which the Belfast assembly currently has no say.

“This [Stormont Brake] is very much limited in scope, and it’s really under very strict conditions,” Mr. Sefcovic told them, according to a recording obtained by The Telegraph.

“On top of that, if we do not feel convinced, we have our joint bodies to deal with this issue, or eventually this case could be presented to the arbitration.

“If we don’t feel the third parties perspective, we will have the possibility to take limited remedial measures because we can tell them it’s affecting the functioning of our single market.”

His words won’t offer any comfort for members of the Democratic Unionist Party and the European Research Group, who are holding off on deciding whether to back Mr. Sunak’s Brexit deal.

The European Commission vice-president’s claim that the European Court of Justice still oversees swathes of EU rules that continue to apply in the province will only make the Prime Minister’s job harder.

Maros Sefcovic said the Prime Minister's pact was simply designed to avoid negative headlines - JOHN THYS

Maros Sefcovic said the Prime Minister’s pact was simply designed to avoid negative headlines – JOHN THYS

“Be under no impression that there will be a diminishing of the role of the European Court of Justice,” Mr Sefcovic said.

“We’ve been very clear from the beginning until the end, the role of the ECJ as the sole and final arbiter of EU law remains in place.”

The eurocrat said the political agreement brokered between Mr Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission’s president, was simply designed to prevent future disputes over EU rules in the province from reaching a “level that would generate political headlines”.

He also urged MEPs to ignore various claims by government ministers to sell the new agreement as a move away from the ECJ in the British newspapers.

“We’ll see what we hear from the UK press,” he said.

‘The Tunnel’

Nevertheless, Mr Sefcovic was happy to see the back of the row over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

He had been bruised in previous talks with Britain, most notably his dealings with Lord Frost, the UK’s former Brexit minister, and Boris Johnson, the architects of the original agreement in October 2019.

Both men have concluded the Windsor Framework leaves Northern Ireland under EU laws, with Brussels still able to make regulations, albeit reducing the bureaucratic processes that had created a trade border in the Irish Sea.

But the current Prime Minister has not exactly made convincing them to support his deal a priority.

After months of intense, secret discussions – nicknamed “the tunnel” – both the UK and the EU reached an agreement to tweak the Protocol.

During that time, Mr. Sunak was able to form a close bond with Mrs von der Leyen, significantly improving UK-EU relations after a meeting on the fringes of the Cop27 climate summit in Egypt.

A shared love of Yes Minister, the political comedy, helped Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Mr Sefcovic ease the tensions between Brussels and London.

The negotiations, mainly carried out in the Commission’s little-known Philippe Le Bon building, had been restricted that just two-thirds of the staff at the UK’s mission in Brussels had been kept in the dark.

Sir Tim Barrow, Britain’s former ambassador to the EU and now national security advisor, and Stephanie Riso, Mrs von der Leyen’s deputy chief of staff, had been drafted in to oversee the process.

The Prime Minister decided not to brief the DUP and Brexiteers on the details of the talks, while the Commission agreed to keep them from national capitals.

Agreement was ‘unravelling’

When a deal seemed likely, Mr Sunak quietly flew into Belfast to convince the DUP to give the looming pact the safest possible landing.

News soon leaked out when he was spotted by a local journalist walking through the luxury Culloden Hotel, which rests on the Hollywood hills overlooking Belfast Lough.

Originally, Mr. Sunak had hoped just to meet his Unionist doubters, but with the word out, Sinn Fein soon demanded to be a part of the talks.

And like that, his deal was suddenly on the rocks, with the DUP refusing to come out in support for it.

Days later, Mr Sefcovic became gloomy and warned US ambassadors the agreement was “unravelling”.

The mood was so dark, the EU’s Brexit chief suggested opening a bottle of whiskey when meeting with Micheal Martin, Ireland’s foreign minister, to ease their sorrows.

Negotiators had toiled away for months trying to end the years-long dispute over the Protocol.

British officials spent entire weeks in Brussels, often negotiating late into the night, trying to find fixes to the agreement brokered by Mr. Johnson.

“There were orange walls, soulless rooms with often-broken coffee machines,” a UK official said. “We’d sit there battering away on things like the export of seed potatoes and plants for garden centers.”

Other senior officials told colleagues they’d have to consider a career change if UK-EU talks continued at such an intensity.

But then, on February 26 after a Sunday afternoon phone call with Mrs. von der Leyen, Mr. Sunak opted to move forward regardless of the lack of backing for his deal.

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen struck a deal on Monday, Feb 27 - Dan Kitwood

Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen struck a deal on Monday, Feb 27 – Dan Kitwood

The Prime Minister believed there were significant splits between the lowly-paid MLAs in the DUP and the richer members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, who can afford to trigger a stalemate over the pact, to proceed without them.

The EU’s top official was invited to Windsor, where they unveiled the pact in front of a portrait of King George V, and lined up for a meeting with the current monarch for tea, to add to the lure for the pro-British unionists.

Their pact could have come earlier.

The trade issues were largely hammered out by Lord Frost, while Liz Truss, the former prime minister and foreign secretary, was credited for the concept of the Stormont Brake to address the democratic deficit.

But it was Mr. Sunak that the EU had found enough confidence to put pen to paper, largely because of their ongoing frustrations at his predecessors’ refusal to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would have allowed ministers to override the Brexit treaty.

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