UK PM Splashes Cold Water on Prospects of Quick Trade Deal

LONDON (AP) -- British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak on Saturday sought to dampen optimism about an imminent settlement in the dispute over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland that has brought political turmoil to the region and clouded relations with the European Union.

A recent flurry of meetings and diplomatic activity, including his own late-night dash to Belfast on Thursday night, has yet to yield an agreement, Sunak said during a question-and-answer session following his speech at a security conference in Munich.

British media outlets have speculated that the outlines of a settlement could be announced as soon as Monday.

"No, there isn't a deal that has been done," Sunak said. "There is an understanding of what needs to be done.''

The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which governs trade between the region and the Republic of Ireland, has been one of the most vexing issues facing the EU and Britain since the U.K. left the bloc more than two years ago.

Sunak met with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen during Saturday's Munich Security Conference as British and EU officials try to capitalize on a recent thaw in relations to resolve their differences.

Sunak's office said the two leaders agreed that recent cooperation in the response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine should be extended to all aspects of the relationship between Britain and the EU.

"They also had a positive discussion about the talks on the Ireland-Northern Ireland Protocol," the prime minister's office said in a statement. "They agreed that there had been very good progress to find solutions. Intensive work in the coming days is still needed at official and ministerial levels."

The protocol was an effort to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland by preserving the free flow of trade between it and the Republic of Ireland, which share the only land border between the United Kingdom and the EU.

But Northern Ireland's biggest unionist party, which wants to remain part of the United Kingdom, opposes the protocol because it says the current arrangement weakens the region's links to Britain.

The Democratic Unionist Party forced the collapse of the region's power-sharing government almost a year ago, saying it wouldn't return until the protocol was renegotiated.

The 1998 agreement that ended three decades of violence in Northern Ireland requires unionists and nationalists, who favor eventual reunification with the Republic of Ireland, to share power in the regional government.

Sunak acknowledged that the protocol created "very real challenges for families, for people, for businesses on the ground,'' including concerns about whether the desires of local residents have been respected.

"We're working through those (issues) hard and we will work through them intensely with the EU, but we are by no means done," he said.