As the European Union’s ambassador to London, João Vale de Almeida had a ringside seat for the chaos overwhelming British politics last year, when all eyes were on the missteps, scandals and resulting downfalls of two prime ministers in quick succession.
Under either of the ousted prime ministers, Vale de Almeida indicated, prospects were dim for resolving one of the most serious conflicts contributing to rocky post-Brexit relations between Britain and the European Union: the trade status of Northern Ireland.
But the relationship has shifted significantly with the rise of a new prime minister, Rishi Sunak, Vale de Almeida said, culminating Monday when Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU’s executive arm, the European Commission, struck a deal to resolve their Northern Ireland dispute.
That breakthrough, Vale de Almeida said, opened a path to greater cooperation not only between Brussels and London but also between Europe and the United States in confronting common challenges such as Russian aggression and rising tension with China, where Western cooperation is essential.
“If Sunak gets enough support for the deal, we can see this as a new beginning,” Vale de Almeida, who completed his assignment in London late last year, said in an interview. “With the EU, the U.K. and the U.S., there is a triangular dimension.”
The agreement followed an era of unrivaled mistrust under Sunak’s two most recent predecessors, Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, and Vale de Almeida said the accord illustrated growing European faith in the new British prime minister.
The deal, called the Windsor Framework, outlines mechanisms to smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom without impeding trade across Northern Ireland’s land border with Ireland, an EU member country.
Tension over the status of Northern Ireland has bedeviled negotiators since Britain voted in 2016 to withdraw from the bloc. In 2020, both sides ratified a withdrawal agreement negotiated by Johnson that kept goods flowing freely across the Irish border but infuriated many people in Northern Ireland by hampering the territory’s trade with Great Britain.
Johnson and Truss then backed legislation to allow Britain to renege on parts of the deal they had approved, angering EU officials. Sunak agreed to drop that plan while securing some new concessions on behalf of Northern Ireland.