Rishi Sunak has been warned that his Brexit deal “falls short”as Northern Irish Unionists refused to accept the rule of the EU court.
The Prime Minister admitted there was still “work to do”, as he said rushes to get an agreement over the line to present to Parliament on Tuesday.
On a last-ditch trip to Northern Ireland on Friday to win the support of political leaders, Mr Sunak faced a setback as Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), told him that the pact as it stands would not win his party’s support.
Sir Jeffrey said the deal as described to him “currently falls short of what would be acceptable”.
Mr Sunak pledged to go back to EU leaders and push them for further concessions on the role of the European court.
But after a meeting with James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, in Brussels, the bloc’s chief negotiator hailed a victory on the issue to EU ambassadors and told them that its judges would retain powers to rule in the province.
A compromise over the role of the court would also cause anger among hardline Tory Brexiteers.
Hopes deal will be done for Biden visit
Mr Sunak is set to hold talks with the leaders of the European Commission, France and Germany in the margins of the Munich Security Conference on Saturday.
Both the British Government and the EU are hoping to get a deal done in time for Joe Biden, the US president, to visit Belfast for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement in April.
Britain and the EU have been in a stand-off for two years over renegotiating the Northern Ireland Protocolwhich prevents a hard border with Ireland by moving checks to the Irish Sea.
Both sides agree that checks must be slashed on goods traveling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which they hope will prompt the DUP to end its year-long boycott of the Stormont Assembly.
However, there have been stalemates over the role of the European Court of Justice in ruling on disputes, as well as how the border is enforced.
On Friday, Mr Sunak held a marathon round of talks with the leaders of the main Northern Irish parties at a five-star hotel outside Belfast, in an effort to secure support for his reformed deal.
His discussion with Sir Jeffrey was scheduled for 15 minutes but lasted over an hour, as the DUP leader pressed him on the role of the EU court.
Mr. Sunak acknowledged the depth of the Unionists’ concern afterwardsaccepting it was “crucial that we address the democratic deficit” in a deal.
Unionists use that phrase to describe the application of Brussels rules in the province without them having any say over how they are made or enforced.
“There’s more work to do and that’s why my ministerial colleagues and I will continue talking to the EU intensely to find solutions,” said the Prime Minister.
“The test I’ve set myself is that we protect Northern Ireland’s place in our internal market, protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement, resolve the practical issues the Protocol is causing families and businesses and, crucially, address the democratic deficit.
“Those are the issues that we need to work through. We haven’t got a deal yet.”
After the meeting, Sir Jeffrey said: “We have not seen the final text. Based on discussions, it is our view that there remain significant areas for further work to be completed.
“Progress has been made in some areas and while that is welcome, in other key areas it currently falls short of what would be acceptable and required to meet our tests as set out.”
He warned that his party would not compromise on its demand that the direct application of EU rules in Northern Ireland be brought to an end.
Mr Sunak must “honour the commitments” made under Boris Johnson’s government to strip the ECJ of its powers in the province, he said.
Asked whether he was prepared to meet the Government halfway, Sir Jeffrey said: “It’s not a question of us compromising.
“When we trade within the UK, then we should follow UK standards and UK rules. That is in essence what we need to get as an outcome from this negotiation.”
A DUP source said they “can’t see any way” that the party could agree to a deal that does not end “the direct application of EU law overseen by a foreign court”.
Mr Cleverly dashed to Brussels on Friday for a lunch with Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s chief negotiator, to iron out last-minute details.
Afterwards, Mr Sefcovic told the bloc’s ambassadors that the proposed agreement on the ECJ was “within EU’s red lines and with no surprises”.
He praised Mr Sunak as the “most constructive UK leader in nine years” but expressed fears the Prime Minister would not be able to sell the deal to his own backbenchers.
“All the humdrum about the ECJ going out of the window, that was obviously a non-starter. Sefcovic underlined that it would not be part of the deal,” said an EU diplomat.
Members of the influential European Research Group have warned the Prime Minister he will be “toast” if he gives in over the role of EU judges.
Sir James Duddridge, a former Brexit minister, said: “I will vote against anything that involves the European Court adjudicating. It’s a political court, it will start to unravel Brexit.”
Peter Bone, the MP for Wellingborough, said: “Rishi must not compromise on the basic principles of Brexit, not in any way get the European Court of Justice involved.”
Under the proposed deal, almost all goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would be able to enter a “green lane” where they would face almost no checks.
The ECJ would be put at arms length, with disputes referred up via either a panel or the Northern Irish courts. However, it would retain the power to hand down binding judgments.