The leaders of Britain and the European Union will hold talks in London on Monday as they seek to finalise a new deal to tackle trade and political disruption in Northern Ireland caused by Brexit.
“President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak agreed to continue their work in person towards shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland,” the leaders said in a joint statement on Sunday.
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“President von der Leyen will therefore meet with the prime minister in the UK tomorrow.”
Earlier, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said Britain was on the cusp of a deal with the EU after more than a year of stop-start and sometimes rancorous negotiations between London and Brussels on an overhaul of the 2020 EU exit deal.
“We’re on the cusp, we’ve made great progress, we’re not there yet,” Raab told the BBC on Sunday.
While an agreement would mark an end to a two-year standoff between the United Kingdom and the EU, Sunak could face a battle with pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers and pro-British Northern Irish politicians to make the deal work.
Key players in Northern Ireland – which is part of the UK – have set a high bar for the kind of deal they would support and Sunak’s own Conservatives are still riddled with the divisions over Brexit that have at times paralysed British politics since the country’s 2016 vote to leave the EU.
As part of its exit agreement, the UK signed an accord with Brussels known as the Northern Ireland Protocol to avoid imposing politically contentious checks along the 500km (310 miles) land border with EU member the Republic of Ireland.
But the protocol effectively created a border for some goods moving from Britain because it kept Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.
Al Jazeera’s Jonah Hull, reporting from London, said there was growing expectation that a “deal is imminent”.
“We know there is to be a meeting in the next hour-and-a-half or so between von der Leyen and Sunak and there is a [UK government] cabinet meeting scheduled for later,” Hull said on Monday morning.
“Conservative Party MPs have been ordered to appear in the House of Commons later this afternoon for a possible statement by the prime minister and there’s even talk of a press conference potentially between Sunak and von der Leyen,” he added.
“So it’s quite possible that the two sides are meeting today for what is described as final talks to rubber-stamp the last few details so that they can then reveal the text of this deal, much of which has been in the hands of negotiators for some time now.”
Sunak is looking to succeed in negotiations where his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss failed, but the push comes at the risk of swamping his domestic priorities as he looks to overturn a huge opinion poll deficit for the ruling Conservative Party ahead of a national election expected next year.
Raab said the deal would address trade tensions by easing the physical checks on goods that were demanded by the EU under the original agreement.
He also said the deal hoped to address concerns that the EU can set rules for Northern Ireland that cannot be influenced by the region’s voters and politicians.
“If there any new rules that would apply in relation to Northern Ireland, it must be right that there’s a Northern Irish democratic check on that,” he said.
But he stopped short of saying European courts would no longer have a say in Northern Ireland. That has been a key demand of the pro-British Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is currently refusing to enter a new power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland.
The DUP has set out seven tests for any deal. The Sunday Times said Sunak was confident the deal met those conditions, but that DUP party leader Jeffrey Donaldson was “minded to reject the deal”.
Without DUP approval, Northern Ireland could remain without a devolved government, meaning one of the main aims of Sunak’s renegotiation would have failed.
A eurosceptic contingent of the Conservative Party is likely to take its lead from the DUP’s final verdict, raising the risk that Sunak’s party fractures and his agenda on the economy, and health and immigration reform is derailed.
Asked whether parliament would get a vote on approving the deal, Raab said lawmakers would have an opportunity to express themselves, but did not explicitly promise a vote.
That drew a sharp warning from lawmaker Mark Francois, head of the eurosceptic European Research Group.
“Given all the history of this, for the government to try and bludgeon this through the House of Commons without a vote of any kind would be incredibly unwise,” he told Sky News.