LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Union leader Ursula von der Leyen are due to meet, the two sides said Sunday, with expectations high they will seal a deal to resolve a thorny post-Brexit trade dispute.
In a joint statement the U.K. and the EU said European Commission President von der Leyen will travel to Britain on Monday so the leaders can work towards "shared, practical solutions for the range of complex challenges around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
U.K. Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab said earlier Sunday that the two sides were on the “cusp” of striking an agreement.
The announcement comes after months of bitter wrangling over trade rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, that has soured U.K.-EU relations, sparked the collapse of the Belfast-based regional government and and threatened to set back the region’s decades-old peace process.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU member, the Republic of Ireland. When the U.K. left the bloc in 2020, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.
Instead there are checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. That angered British unionist politicians, who insist that the new trade border undermines Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.
U.K. and EU negotiators have been inching towards a solution for weeks, but any deal with the bloc is a political quandary for Sunak. Hints of compromise towards the EU have sparked opposition from hard-line euroskeptics in Sunak’s governing Conservative Party, including one of his predecessors as prime minister, Boris Johnson.
The Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s main British unionist force, also has warned it will oppose any deal that does not meet its demand for “significant, substantive change” to the Brexit treaty between the U.K. and the EU.