As Rishi Sunak hailed his Brexit deal that “takes back control” of Northern Ireland, the European Union’s chief negotiator told a very different story about who controls the province at a private meeting in Brussels.
Maros Sefcovic discussed the European Parliament’s Brexit committees on the freshly minted “Windsor Framework” and said the Prime Minister’s pact was simply designed to avoid negative headlines in the British press and would not return full sovereignty over the region.
The burly Slovakian diplomat, who doesn’t bite his tongue, threw cold water on any suggestion Britain had effectively vetoed new European laws affecting Northern Ireland, insisting the bloc’s top court is still the supreme court would rule.
“Stormont Brake is very limited in scope”
Referring to Stormont Brake, which Mr Sunak claims will give Northern Ireland politicians a veto over new EU rules for the province, Mr Sefcovic assured MPs that Brussels has the power to overrule any decision involving trade sanctions such as tariffs against Britain respond to exports.
The mechanism was created to address unionist concerns about the introduction of Brussels regulations over which the assembly in Belfast currently has no say.
“The [Stormont Brake] is very limited in scope and subject to really very strict conditions,” Mr Sefcovic told them, according to a recording obtained by The Telegraph.
“Furthermore, if we feel unconvinced, we have our joint bodies to deal with this matter, or this case could eventually be referred to arbitration.”
“If we don’t feel the third-party perspective, we have an opportunity to take limited remedial action because we can tell them it’s affecting the functioning of our single market.”
His words will offer no solace to members of the Democratic Unionist Party and European Research Group, who are holding back on deciding whether to support Mr Sunak’s Brexit deal.
The vice-president of the European Commission’s claim that the European Court of Justice is still overseeing much of the EU’s rules, which remain in force in the province, will only complicate the prime minister’s job.
“Don’t assume that the role of the European Court of Justice will be diminished,” said Mr Sefcovic.
“We have made it very clear from start to finish that the role of the ECJ remains as the sole and final arbiter of EU law.”
The Eurocrat said the political deal negotiated between Mr Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, the Commission President, was designed simply to prevent future disputes over EU rules in the province from reaching “a level that would generate political headlines “.
He also urged MEPs to ignore various claims by government ministers that the new deal was being sold in UK newspapers as a departure from the ECJ.
“We’ll see what we hear from the British press,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mr Sefcovic was happy to see the end of the dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol.
He had been hurt in previous talks with the UK, notably his dealings with Lord Frost, the former UK Brexit Secretary, and Boris Johnson, the architects of the original deal in October 2019.
Both men have concluded that the Windsor Framework leaves Northern Ireland under EU law, with Brussels still able to legislate despite reducing the bureaucratic processes that had created a trade border in the Irish Sea.
But the current prime minister hasn’t exactly made convincing them to back his deal a priority.
After months of intense, secret discussions – nicknamed ‘the tunnel’ – the UK and EU agreed to tweak the protocol.
During this time, Mr Sunak was able to develop a close bond with Ms von der Leyen and greatly improved UK-EU relations following a meeting on the sidelines of the COP27 climate summit in Egypt.
A shared love of Yes Minister, the political comedy, helped Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and Mr Sefcovic ease tensions between Brussels and London.
Negotiations, conducted mainly in the Commission’s little-known Philippe Le Bon building, had been constrained by the fact that only two-thirds of the staff at the British representation in Brussels were left in the dark.
Sir Tim Barrow, former British Ambassador to the EU and now National Security Adviser, and Stephanie Riso, Ms von der Leyen’s deputy chief of staff, had been drafted in to oversee the trial.
The Prime Minister decided not to update the DUP and Brexiteers on the details of the talks, while the Commission agreed to keep them away from national capitals.
Agreement has been “dissolved”
When an agreement seemed likely, Mr Sunak flew quietly to Belfast to persuade the DUP to allow the looming pact the safest landing.
The news soon broke when he was spotted by a local journalist walking by the luxurious Culloden Hotel, which rests on Hollywood Hills overlooking Belfast Lough.
Originally, Mr Sunak had hoped to meet only his unionist doubters, but when the news broke, Sinn Fein soon demanded to be at the talks.
And so his deal suddenly faltered, with the DUP refusing to back him.
Days later, Mr Sefcovic turned somber and warned US ambassadors the deal would “unravel”.
The mood was so somber that the EU Brexit chief suggested opening a bottle of whiskey at a meeting with Ireland’s Foreign Minister Micheal Martin to ease their worries.
Negotiators had been working for months to end years of dispute over the protocol.
British officials spent whole weeks in Brussels, often negotiating late into the night, trying to find solutions to the deal Mr Johnson brokered.
“There were orange walls, soulless rooms with often broken coffee machines,” said a British official. “We sat and worked on things like exporting seed potatoes and plants for garden centers.”
Other senior officials told their colleagues they would have to consider a career change if talks between the UK and the EU continued at such intensity.
But then, on February 26, after a Sunday afternoon phone call with Ms von der Leyen, Mr Sunak opted to go ahead despite the lack of support for his deal.
The Prime Minister believed there were significant divisions between the low-paid MLAs in the DUP and the wealthier members of the Houses of Commons and Lords, who can afford to trigger a standoff over the Pact to proceed without them.
The EU’s top official was invited to Windsor, where he unveiled the pact in front of a portrait of King George V, and lined up to meet the current monarch for tea to increase the allure of pro-British unionists.
Their pact could have come about sooner.
Trade issues were largely drafted by Lord Frost, while Liz Truss, former Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary, has been credited with conceptualizing the Stormont Brake to address the Democratic deficit.
But it was in Mr Sunak that the EU had found enough confidence to put it on paper, largely because of their continued frustration at his predecessors’ refusal to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Act, which would have allowed ministers to suspend the Brexit deal.