Former UK finance minister Rishi Sunak is the best hope for any negotiated solution to the Northern Ireland Protocol, multiple EU sources have told Euronews.
The expectation among diplomats is that he is the least likely candidate among those vying to replace Boris Johnson as prime minister to risk a trade war with the UK’s nearest neighbours and most lucrative trading bloc, given his experience as finance minister. The diplomats and officials Euronews spoke with wished to speak anonymously so as to not create more tension with Britain.
EU member states have been clear that if the Northern Ireland Protocol bill is passed through the House of Commons and is eventually enacted, there would be trade sanctions against Britain.
Some in Brussels hope this is enough to ward off radical action by Sunak should he take the top job.
A recent June report by the Centre for European Reform (CER) showed that the UK economy is 5 per cent smaller than if Britain had stayed in the EU.
The same report estimated that investment is 13.7 per cent lower, and goods trade, is 13.6 per cent lower in the final quarter of 2021.
They are optimistic that Sunak argued against the triggering of Article 16 several months ago, pointing out the peril of risking the suspension of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation agreement.
But there is no real, discernable faith that relations are bound to improve any time soon, regardless of the positions of the leaders.
“I find it hard to see where it can go in terms of a more structured approach, after Liz Truss came in we had hope, but look how that has turned out,” a senior diplomat told Euronews.
“She was supposed to be more pragmatic and said she wanted to resolve the issue, but just look at her now – she’s taking a much more extreme approach.”
“To be honest, now it’s hard to see electoral space in the UK for a better way,” said the senior diplomat.
The resignation of Boris Johnson is not seen as a harbinger that the UK will soon seek a more mutually beneficial approach to EU-UK relations, much to the disappointment of those in Brussels who have grown tired of the constant confrontation over the last few years.
“Indeed there was a bit of glee, maybe schadenfreude to see Johnson go, but in the end, we are all very well versed in politics in Britain at this stage and understand we won’t likely get a reasonable voice,” said a diplomat.
“Let’s face it, the needle has barely moved with regard to understanding the EU among politicians and journalists in Britain since the referendum, despite us being entirely consistent about our position. It’s an area that always finds unanimity; we will always protect the single market, as that’s where our interests lie.”
The UK’s Northern Ireland Protocol bill is a breach of the legally binding international agreement signed by the EU and UK, Brussels says.
“The EU cannot countenance a situation where the UK somehow sets its own conditions regarding its use and entry into our Single Market – it is simply unacceptable,” said a Commission source.
“We have tried for months to resolve this issue; we have offered a calendar of proposed discussions based on our offerings to give special derogations for Northern Ireland, but the UK has simply refused to come to the table – it’s entirely political,” said the source.
Another diplomat said they still regret the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but will always back the EU.
“We benefit from a strong EU, that’s what we need for our economy, we’d prefer to see the UK back as a partner of some sort, but if the UK forces us to choose then we’ll choose the EU every time.”