How a meeting on the sidelines of Cop27 paved the way for a UK-EU trade deal

UK PM Rishi Sunak and EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen first met in Egypt in November

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When European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, a former German defence minister, met the UK's newly appointed Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in November on the sidelines of Cop27 in Sharm el Sheikh, Egypt, UK-EU relations were at an all-time low.

Mr Sunak had the daunting task of renegotiating a controversial two-year old trade agreement with the EU at a turbulent time in British politics.

Talks had collapsed last February under Boris Johnson's leadership and remained stalled after Liz Truss was appointed prime minister in September.

She alarmed Brussels by threatening to unilaterally rip up what was known as the Protocol, which the UK was reluctant to enforce because it created border checks between Britain and Northern Ireland.

But all this changed after Mr Sunak came to power the following month. Fewer than two weeks later, he met Ms von der Leyen for the first time in Egypt.

Their meeting set the tone for improved UK-EU relations.

"The mood music certainly improved," an EU official told The National. "This helped the President [von der Leyen] and PM build trust between one another."

At the time, Ms von der Leyen tweeted a photo of both leaders smiling and wrote that she looked forward to a "constructive relationship".

In a joint press conference with Mr Sunak on Monday, Ms von der Leyen reminisced about that first encounter. Shared concerns over the war in Ukraine seemed to have been a driving force towards strengthening their collaboration.

"I remember our first discussions, when we saw eye-to-eye on how to support our Ukrainian friends," she said. "And I was encouraged by our trustful and strong co-operation on this crucial geostrategic issue.

"But I also remember how the two of us were honest with each other about the difficulties in our bilateral relationship."

'Dear Rishi'

Addressing the UK Prime Minister as "dear Rishi," Ms von der Leyen said they both knew "they could do it" because they were "genuinely committed to finding a practical solution for people and for all communities in Northern Ireland".

Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen met again in person in November at a G20 summit in Indonesia and also earlier this month at a high-level security conference in Munich, the EU official said.

In January, the first results of backdoor negotiations between EU and British officials started to become apparent, when the UK agreed on a way forward on sharing live data with the bloc.

This important initial step in negotiations was warmly welcomed in Brussels and "opened up possibilities to find solutions in other areas", said another EU official.

A few weeks later, Ms von der Leyen travelled to the UK to sign off on a renegotiated trade agreement called the Windsor Framework. Both sides have expressed satisfaction with the deal.

In what EU officials have described as a separate meeting, Ms von der Leyen also met King Charles III for tea at Windsor Castle.

But a source close to the negotiations with Mr Sunak said that behind the media frenzy and glamour lay months of grinding work "into the small hours in windowless buildings, with dubious sandwiches with needless amounts of egg involved".

"On the day the deal was done, some of us went to bed at 2 or 3am," they added. "People who have been saying this deal was done two weeks ago should speak to our spouses. It's not been sitting there finished."

Officials on both sides wanted the deal done before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement on April 10, when US President Joe Biden is reportedly lining up a trip to Europe.

'Significant change'

Prof Federico Fabbrini, founding director of Dublin City University’s Brexit Institute, told The National a “significant change” in the UK-EU relationship once Mr Sunak had entered office was clear.

Prof Fabbrini, a visiting professor at Princeton University in New Jersey, said there was logic behind Mr Sunak’s decision to approach Brussels with a different attitude to that of his predecessors, and the Windsor Framework proves it was a wise strategy.

“I think Sunak has really embraced a much more co-operative and cautious approach to the EU,” he said. It was a shift from the “confrontational tack that Boris Johnson and Liz Truss” had shown to Brussels, he added.

What is the Windsor Framework?

What is the Windsor Framework?

The Conservative Party continues to trail Labour in opinion polls, with some recent surveys giving Keir Starmer’s group a 28-point lead.

Boris Johnson was noticeably absent from the House of Commons on Monday evening when Mr Sunak outlined the Windsor Framework to MPs.

The former Conservative leader was seen by The National in Parliament on Tuesday and declined to comment when asked for his take on the Prime Minister’s agreement with the EU.

A source close to Mr Johnson was cited by The Times as saying he was studying and reflecting on the deal before making his mind up. Mr Sunak spoke to Mr Johnson, his former boss, in recent days to give him a broad outline of the framework, the newspaper reported.

Prof Fabbrini said to win backing from Brexit-supporting sections of the electorate, Mr Sunak must be regarded as a uniting force.

The support of Mr Johnson for his deal would offer Mr Sunak a major boost on his mission to promote the framework, the academic said.

“Boris Johnson played a key role in Brexit and Brexit is the reason [behind] this unholy alliance between two very different electorate groups,” Prof Fabbrini said, referring to the working-class and upper-middle-class voters who supported the UK leaving the EU.

The weak state of the UK economy was another reason that pushed Mr Sunak to rebuild relations with the EU, said Prof Fabbrini.

“He had to de-mine the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has been the sour grape in the relationship," he said.

Prof Fabbrini said there was "no doubt" that Brussels had been supportive of Mr Sunak's efforts, "particularly because I think from their perspective it’s absurd to continue fighting with the UK when you have a war in Ukraine and the UK is a like-minded democratic [partner]”.

Mr Sunak visited Northern Ireland on Tuesday as he kick-started his mission to sell his Brexit deal to politicians in the region.

While he is keen to get the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on board with supporting the Windsor Framework, the Prime Minister suggested he would be willing to push his deal through Parliament without the party’s backing.

The DUP has welcomed progress made by Mr Sunak in striking the deal with Brussels, but MPs from the region’s main pro-UK party have said concerns remain.

Asked whether the pact would be implemented if the DUP withheld support, Mr Sunak left the door open for such a scenario.

“This is not necessarily about me or any one political party,” he said. “This is about what is best for the people and communities and businesses of Northern Ireland and this agreement will make a hugely positive difference to them.”

Prof Fabbrini said Mr Sunak should avoid this path at all costs.

“It’s very hard for a prime minister to survive if he needs to rely on the votes of opposition [MPs] to get such a major policy piece through Westminster,” he warned.

Updated: March 01, 2023, 8:15 AM