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Sunday, Feb 25, 2024

Sunak's warm relationship with EU over new deal will boost UK's world standing - NI Protocol negotiator

Sunak's warm relationship with EU over new deal will boost UK's world standing - NI Protocol negotiator

The Windsor Framework was agreed on Monday by Rishi Sunak and EU chief Ursula von der Leyen to replace the Northern Ireland Protocol that created trade issues for Northern Ireland.

A former senior civil servant who helped negotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol has said the new agreement - and Rishi Sunak's warm relationship with his EU counterpart - will boost the UK's standing in the world.

Rory O'Donnell, now a partner at public affairs firm Penta, told Sky News the positive EU/UK relationship displayed by the Windsor Framework is "good for the UK's standing in the world".

The prime minister and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen revealed the new Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland on Monday at a news conference where they were full of praise for each other.

Relations between the EU and the UK had reached rock bottom under Boris Johnson's leadership, with the former PM introducing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to override aspects of the deal he agreed with the EU in 2020 that caused trade issues for Northern Ireland.

Mr O'Donnell, who was director for the Withdrawal Agreement on the Northern Ireland Protocol in the UK mission to the EU until last October, credited the relationship between Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen for getting the new deal over the line.

He told Sky News: "One of the most striking things from my perspective, as much of the content of the framework, was the warm body language and relationship between the PM and the European Commission president at that press conference.

"When politicians strike up a good relationship it makes it possible for officials to make progress on quite tricky technical issues.

"He seems to have got on very well with the president of the commission and I think that really helped progress being made."

Rory O'Connell was part of the team that negotiated the protocol



Sunak has a better relationship with EU than Johnson


Mr O'Donnell added that he did not think Mr Johnson had "as good a relationship with his European counterparts as the current prime minister...which made it difficult to solve technical problems".

Mr Sunak said on Tuesday the new deal, which is yet to get official approval from MPs, puts Northern Ireland in an "unbelievably special position" as it provides access to both the UK and EU markets.

His comments raised eyebrows as Brexit, which Mr Sunak backed, always meant the UK would be out of the EU single market.

But Mr O'Donnell said the focus should be on what is good for the island of Ireland and how it will benefit the UK on the world stage.

Good for the UK's global standing


"It's less that the rest of the UK is at a disadvantage, although they are, it's more that we have to find solutions to deal with the issues on the island of Ireland and this is the way we've done that," he said.

"The side effect of that is Northern Ireland is in a unique position to attract incoming growth in the coming year.

"Northern Ireland is uniquely placed to benefit from the single market in the EU and the rest of the UK.

"I think that should be an attractive proposition for companies thinking about investments in either the UK or Europe."

But he said for the UK there are "real opportunities, a broader political one".

Focus can now be on other world issues


Mr O'Donnell added that now the focus is off the trade issues with Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU can use their good relationship to focus on other issues such as migration, China and the cost of living crisis.

"Better political relations between the UK and the EU mean we can cooperate more closely on those issues," he said.

Mr O'Donnell was part of the team that helped organise the original NI protocol but said he only has praise for negotiators on both sides who have agreed the new deal.

"Some people would say there was over-implementation and the bureaucratic way in which the EU went about the implementation of the protocol was more stringent than it needed to be - and that had consequences," he said.

"I think it's fair to say that both sides at the time hadn't fully anticipated what the full impact would be and it was only through operating the full protocol the issues became clear.

"This wasn't the intention by either side during the negotiations.

"My motivation all along was to try and get a deal for Northern Ireland, I think anything that makes life in NI easier is a good thing.

"I think we did as good a job on the protocol as we could at the time but the Windsor Framework is an improvement on that and should benefit both Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK."

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