UK's Sunak faces Conservative opposition to his Brexit deal

AP , Wednesday 22 Mar 2023

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak faces a rebellion from some fellow Conservatives, including his two immediate predecessors, when lawmakers vote Wednesday on his deal with the European Union to revise the rules governing Northern Ireland trade.

Rishi Sunak
Britain s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak speaking during the weekly session of Prime Minister s Questions (PMQs) in the House of Commons in London on March 22, 2023. AFP


Former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss said they would vote against the agreement, which is designed to resolve a thorny trade dispute that vexed U.K.-EU relations and triggered a political crisis in Belfast.

Johnson, who led Britain out of the EU in 2020, said the deal was “not acceptable” because it kept some EU laws in operation in Northern Ireland, restricting the U.K.’s ability to diverge from the bloc's rules and “take advantage of Brexit.”

A hard-Brexit group of Conservative Party lawmakers known as the European Research Group also said it opposed the deal.

Sunak’s agreement, known as the Windsor Framework, replaces elements of the Brexit divorce deal negotiated by Johnson, and hailed by him at the time as an “oven-ready” agreement.

Ahead of Wednesday’s vote, Sunak said the framework was “a good deal for the people, families and businesses of Northern Ireland” and protects the region’s place in the United Kingdom.

Despite the opposition, the British government is expected to win the vote because the opposition Labour Party backs the changes.

Johnson’s deal imposed customs checks and other hurdles on goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. in order to maintain an open border between the region and its EU neighbor, the Republic of Ireland. The open border is a key pillar of Northern Ireland’s peace process.

Northern Ireland’s British unionist politicians strongly opposed the customs border, saying it undermined Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. The Democratic Unionist Party walked out of the power-sharing semi-autonomous Belfast government a year ago in protest, leaving Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people without a functioning administration.

The Windsor Framework removes most of the checks and is designed to ease the burden on businesses and to address the unionist concerns. It gives Northern Ireland politicians a mechanism, known as the Stormont Brake, to challenge new EU trade rules that could apply in the region — a key unionist demand.

But the Democratic Unionist Party is concerned the mechanism does not go far enough, and some elements of EU law will continue to apply in Northern Ireland.

The DUP says its eight lawmakers in the House of Commons will also oppose the government in Wednesday's vote, which is specifically on the Stormont Brake part of the deal.

The U.K. and the EU are set to formally adopt the Windsor agreement at a Friday meeting between British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly and EU Brexit negotiator Maroš Šefčovič.

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