European Union, UK strike new deal over post-Brexit trade rules in Northern Ireland

Britain and the European Union have reached an agreement on new trade rules in Northern Ireland in an attempt to resolve a thorny issue that has fueled post-Brexit tensions in Europe and on the island of Ireland.

The deal could potentially resolve the issue of imports and border checks in Northern Ireland, one of the most challenging and controversial aspects of the United Kingdom's split from the EU.

Speaking at a press conference in Windsor, just outside London, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that the new deal, called the "Windsor Framework," will deliver "smooth flowing trade" within the UK, "protects Northern Ireland's place" in the UK and "safeguards" the sovereignty of Northern Ireland.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen acknowledged the tense relations between the UK and EU since Brexit. She said that in order for the two parties to "make the most of our partnership" new solutions were needed. She pointed to the UK and EU's cooperation on Ukraine and said that "we needed to listen to each others concerns very carefully."

The purpose of the deal is to fix the issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol, an addendum to the Brexit deal agreed by Boris Johnson and the EU in 2019. The protocol was created to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with the EU, meaning goods don't need to be checked between the Republic and the province.

The two leaders laid out three essential areas in which the new deal will improve the protocol.

Sunak said the deal will protect the flow of free trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by creating green and red lines for goods flowing into Northern Ireland. Goods that run the risk of entering the Republic of Ireland will be placed in the red lane before entering Northern Ireland. Goods that will remain in Northern Ireland will flow freely, Sunak said, meaning that "if food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, it will be available in Northern Ireland."

The prime minister said that through the deal the UK and the EU have managed to protect "Northern Ireland's place in the union" by allowing the UK government to determine VAT rates applicable in Northern Ireland, as opposed to the current system where the rates are determined by the EU. He said this would allow recent policies, such as the reform to lower the price of pints in British pubs, to now apply in Northern Ireland.

Finally, he also announced a new "Stormont brake" that would allow Northern Ireland's devolved government to pull an "emergency brake" on any new EU laws from being imposed on the province.

"This will establish a clear process through which the democratically elected assembly can pull an emergency brake for changes to EU goods, rules that would have significant and lasting effect on everyday lives," Sunak said.

He added that if the brake is pulled by the Northern Irish government, the Westminster government will be given a veto over the law.

Von der Leyen arrived in the UK Monday for final talks with Sunak, ahead of a statement about the deal in the House of Commons. Von der Leyen would also meet with King Charles III for tea at Windsor Castle, Buckingham Palace confirmed.

Negotiations intensified in recent weeks, after months of impasse over how to handle checks in Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK but shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.

Now that a deal is done, Sunak faces a political backlash from hardline Euroskeptics in his Conservative Party.

Von der Leyen's meeting with the King has proved controversial. "The King is pleased to meet any world leader if they are visiting Britain and it is the Government's advice that he should do so," the Palace said when it announced the sit-down.

According to a royal source, the meeting would be an opportunity for Charles to discuss topics including the war in Ukraine and climate change.

But it was criticized by some prominent unionist figures. "I cannot quite believe that No 10 would ask HM the King to become involved in the finalising of a deal as controversial as this one," former Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster wrote in a tweet. "It's crass and will go down very badly in NI."

The Northern Ireland Protocol, signed with Brussels by former Prime Minister Johnson, attempted to recognize the delicate situation that Brexit created in Northern Ireland.

Ordinarily, the existence of a border between an EU member state and a non-EU nation like the UK would require infrastructure such as customs posts. But during the period of sectarian strife known as the Troubles, security posts along the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland became a target for paramilitary groups fighting for a united Ireland.

In theory, the Northern Ireland Protocol was intended to do away with the need for border infrastructure. It was agreed that Northern Ireland would remain within the EU's regulatory sphere, and that goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would be checked before they arrived -- effectively imposing a sea border.

That enraged the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland, who argued they were being cut off from the rest of the UK and forced closer to the Republic. Disputes about the arrangements, in part, have been a barrier to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has been suspended since 2017. The sharing of power between unionists and republicans is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement -- the peace deal that marked the end of the Troubles.

The wrangling has also affected trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland to the extent that the UK has not fully implemented the protocol.