The outgoing EU ambassador to the UK has claimed there is a window to resolve the corrosive post-Brexit dispute over Northern Ireland because “the mood music has changed”, leaving the two sides “not that far apart”.
In an interview with the Financial Times, João Vale de Almeida said he had been “encouraged” by prime minister Rishi Sunak’s early meetings with EU leaders and that an agreement would transform relations, clearing the way for Britain to join the €95bn Horizon Europe research project.
“Contact between leaders and intimacy has been lacking,” he said, reflecting on his three years as the EU’s first envoy to Britain and the bad feeling and mistrust that flowed from Brexit.
“We’ve had more summits with China than we have had with the UK,” said Vale de Almeida. “There have been none. That’s not normal. These people need to share their WhatsApp numbers.”
The view in Brussels is that Sunak, even though he supported Leave in the 2016 referendum, arrived in Downing Street without the Brexit baggage of Boris Johnson and will see EU relations through an economic lens.
Sunak this week held positive talks with EU leaders including European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and French president Emmanuel Macron at the COP27 summit in Egypt.
“There’s a new cycle in Britain and there should be a new cycle in UK-EU relations,” the ambassador said.
Vale de Almeida took up his “job without a manual” in February 2020, but Johnson initially refused to grant him the same diplomatic status as other national envoys.
“Low levels of trust existed between the two sides — everyone has to bear their share of responsibility,” he said. “Trust begins with leaders. If there’s no personal chemistry, no common territory of conversation, there isn’t much we diplomats or bureaucrats can do.”
Sunak’s appointment has sparked renewed hope of a resolution of the Northern Ireland protocol row, but Vale de Almeida urged caution, saying improved atmospherics alone would not end a dispute that has soured relations for several years.
“The mood music has changed, the melody is nicer but we still don’t have the words of a new British song,” said the veteran diplomat, who will leave his London post next week.
Officials on both sides are talking again about resolving the row over the Northern Ireland protocol, part of Johnson’s Brexit deal that covers trading arrangements in the region. But they remain some distance from entering the famous “tunnel”, where the final compromises are made.
“There are always talks about talks and real talks — we are somewhere in between,” said Vale de Almeida, adding: “We’re not that far apart. We need now to focus on the landing zone.”
Chris Heaton-Harris, Northern Ireland secretary, on Wednesday delayed new elections to the suspended Stormont assembly until next spring, telling the FT he was “very positive” about the prospects of a deal on the protocol early next year.
Vale de Almeida warned that the EU would not adopt a new negotiating mandate — a key British demand — but said there was enough flexibility to find a deal because “we have not exhausted the potential of our offers”.
To address the concerns of pro-UK unionist politicians about checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland — which are needed to avoid EU checks on the Irish land border — Vale de Almeida said Brussels would work to make them “as invisible as possible”.
The bloc wants to use “real-time data” from Britain to assess potential risks from shipments across the Irish Sea, reducing the need for physical checks. But he said: “We can’t accept the situation where there are zero checks.”
A deal over the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland, which remains part of the EU’s single market for goods, is also being scoped out. That could leave the Luxembourg court with a reduced role in a broader dispute resolution mechanism.
Vale de Almeida acknowledged the idea of striking a deal before the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement next year, and restarting the Stormont executive, should be a “stimulus”, but said it was not a deadline.
He said he hoped that, once Sunak had navigated next week’s Autumn Statement, he would give impetus to a pre-Christmas push on talks, which — if successful — could unlock better relations across a range of fronts.
Vale de Almeida previously admitted that British entry to Horizon had been paused because of the Northern Ireland dispute.
But he said it was not too late to rescue the situation, adding: “My message to my British friends is to keep faith in us and we keep faith in you. Don’t do anything irreversible that makes association more difficult in the future.”
Vale de Almeida admitted there was a darker scenario in which talks failed and the UK parliament enacted a bill to scrap the protocol.
He said the bill, being considered by the House of Lords, “basically substantiates the violation of an international treaty”.
The calculation in Brussels is that Sunak will oversee a deal because he wants to avoid a trade war with Europe during a recession.
Vale de Almeida said a negative “Brexit effect” was now evident on the British economy and that he had not seen a single study suggesting that leaving the EU had made the UK better off.
He said British companies he had visited opposed the scrapping of old EU laws “for the sake of divergence”, adding that they did not want to face two sets of rules if they wanted to trade in Britain and the EU.
Vale de Almeida said he would “never exclude” the possibility of the UK one day rejoining the bloc but that the priority was to restore trust and ensure the new framework operated properly.
“Make it work — then, further down the road, we’ll see what our voters, what our leaders want,” he said. “It’s a dynamic relationship.”
Reflecting on his posting, Vale de Almeida said he would miss the Premier League and English tea but that: “There has been too much drama. It was a traumatic divorce. My hope is that my successor has a more boring life than me.”