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EU hands Rishi Sunak a win as it seeks to bring Britain closer

von der Leyen and Sunak - REUTERS

von der Leyen and Sunak – REUTERS

The European Union handed Rishi Sunak a win with his new Brexit deal for Northern Ireland because it wants to bring Britain closer.

In the Prime Minister, Ursula von der Leyen thinks she has found a man with whom the EU can do business.

The UK-EU trade deal is seen as bare bones. Despite creating a free trade area for goodsit also erected new barriers after Brexit.

British mussels and oyster farmers can no longer export live bivalve molluscs to French, Dutch, Belgian or Spanish restaurants, for example.

Britain saw that as a price worth paying for winning back sovereignty and breaking free of Brussels’ orbit of rules and regulations.

But it has had a deleterious effect between the UK and its major trading partner.

The EU knows that Mr. Sunak believes Europe will be important in his drive to unlock stagnant economic growth.

And it sees the Windsor Framework as a first step to rebuilding a closer trading relationship with the UK, which will benefit European businesses during the cost of living crisis.

It also puts to bed the threat of an economically damaging UK-EU trade war triggered by Britain carrying out its threats. to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Chalked up against that eventual prize, why wouldn’t Brussels turn a blind eye to strict rules for trees, holidaying pets and the great British banger?

A closer trading relationship implies closer ties to the EU’s rules. At this stage, there is no expectation of a return to the Single Market and Customs Union but Brussels always has its eye on the long game.

The Ukraine war also bought political space for the deal to be struck. With Putin’s illegal war raging in Europe, technical squabbles over trade and customs red tape faded in importance to a united Western front against Russia.

The UK and EU worked well together sanctions against Moscow and European diplomats whisper hopefully that Britain is back on the world stage after the years of Brexit isolation.

There are already optimistic talks of new UK-EU security deals and the rejected idea of ​​a treaty governing foreign policy cooperation being resurrected.

Getting this deal done will help reset relations with EU member states and France in particular, which will be vital to get new agreements over the line.

Softer side to Macron

The ardently pro-EU Emmanuel Macron once relished his role as Brussels’ bad cop during the Brexit negotiations. He needed Brexit to be shown to be a painful error to fend off the challenge of the Eurosceptic Marine Le Pen in last April’s presidential elections.

Relations were so strained that British and French navy boats shadowed each other off the coast of Jersey as a dispute over post-Brexit fishing rights flared.

But now, as shown by his invitation to the UK to join the European Political Community summit last year, Mr Macron is in a forgiving mood.

The new deal makes a reset in relations that will be crowned by the King’s visit to France, his first state visit abroad since becoming monarch.

If an Anglo-French summit in March results in a deal over small boats crossing the Channel, the seeds for that agreement were planted in Windsor.

Mr. Sunak was able to deliver the new Brexit deal in large part because he was not Boris Johnson.

Brussels was willing to offer the Prime Minister concessions that were simply not on the table for his predecessor.

The EU did not trust Mr. Johnson, seeing him as a liar willing to break international law and renege on treaty commitments made in 2019.

In truth, for the European Commission, it was a case of anyone but Boris. The groundwork for much of the deal was laid during Liz Truss’s short stint in No 10.

Brussels knew the deal faced a rough reception from Tory Brexiteers, not least Mr. Johnson himself, and wanted to help Mr. Sunak get it over the line.

Boris Johnson - Olivier Matthys/AP

Boris Johnson – Olivier Matthys/AP

That’s why Mrs. von der Leyen made the trip to Britain and spared the Prime Minister from having to go to Brussels for a Brexit deal like Mr. Johnson and Theresa May.

Such generosity did not extend to dropping the red line of a continued role for the European Court of Justice.

It is an article of faith for the EU that the ECJ is the sole and ultimate arbiter of its laws, and ditching it would make the deal impossible to sell to member states.

But short of that, Brussels was willing to go the extra mile and further than its October 2021 offer to Mr. Johnson, with whom it was prepared to fight a sausage trade war.

The new Stormont brake and the repatriation of tax and subsidy powers to London from Brussels are significant wins.

Mrs. von der Leyen also signaled that Brussels would soon drop its block on the UK’s associate membership of the £81 billion Horizon research program.

It could be a harbinger of future partnerships and more deals to come.

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