PM Rishi Sunak’s diplomacy has brought about a much needed thaw in relations between the UK and the EU.
Ever since he became the Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak has hardly put a foot wrong. Some sections of the British media have been trying very hard to portray him as a failure. Not having much luck in their endeavours, they have adopted a different approach, which is to ignore him. Most of the media including the BBC failed to highlight Rishi’s confident, professional and articulate persona both inside and outside of Parliament. His youthful looks camouflage a very sharp, intelligent and a pragmatic individual. He has been quietly stamping his authority on the vision he has for the country. One of the biggest problems facing the country after leaving the European Union was to resolve the contentious issue of Northern Ireland. For those who are unfamiliar with the history of Northern Ireland, a little introduction is necessary. Northern Ireland has two big communities made up of Catholics and Protestants. The Catholics want to merge with Ireland and the Protestants are vehemently opposed to the idea. They want to remain a part of the United Kingdom. Massive violence has taken place between these communities over the last three decades.
As part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a Northern Ireland Protocol was signed between the UK and EU. This meant that goods from mainland UK to Northern Ireland would need customs clearance. This massively increased the red tape. There are 500 pieces of legislation that apply to Northern Ireland but do not apply to the rest of the UK. The Protocol was opposed by the Unionists because they saw it as undermining Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. The Democratic Unionist Party in February 2022 withdrew from the Northern Ireland assembly in Stormont. The assembly has since been suspended. It is the ministers and civil servants who are managing the affairs of Northern Ireland now. This political vacuum has the potential to reignite past troubles. It was a matter of urgency to tackle this matter. There was an added urgency as on 15 June 2022 the European Union took legal action against the UK for not keeping to the Protocol.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak started to focus on the issue taking advantage of a parliamentary break when MPs were away. He engaged with Northern Ireland business leaders. They found him encouraging and impressive. He had intense negotiations with the EU president Ursula Von der Leyen. Rishi’s proposal is to create green and red lanes. The green lanes would remove all checks and customs controls as well as security and safety certificates for goods going to Northern Ireland from the mainland UK. The red lane would be for goods going on to Ireland and the rest of the Europe. These would have to go full checks and customs controls. The agreement will mean that for the first time since Brexit, UK Parliament will be able to set the Northern Ireland VAT and spell out the state aid policy.
A joint statement by PM Rishi Sunak and EU president Ursula Von der Leyen on Monday 27 February 2023 spelled out the resolution of the dispute. The EU president referred to PM Rishi Sunak as, “Dear Rishi”, which is a compliment to Rishi and his ability to win hearts and minds.
The agreement was welcomed by the former Prime Minister Theresa May and the leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer. The Northern Ireland minister and hardline Brexiteer Steve Baker said: “The PM is on the cusp of securing a really fantastic result for everyone involved.” The Democratic Unionist Party is studying the agreement closely and it will be under pressure from the business leaders to accept the same quickly.
PM Rishi Sunak’s diplomacy has brought about a much needed thaw in relations between the UK and the EU. It might pave the way to resolving other issues. In contrast former PM Boris Johnson wanted to tear up the Northern Ireland Protocol unilaterally. This was certain to lead towards a trade war between the UK and EU. Rishi Sunak has proved himself to be an able leader whose stature is bound to rise on the world stage.
Nitin Mehta is the founder of Indian Cultural Centre, London. www.nitinmehta.co.uk