London: Britain and the European Union on Monday agreed a crucial overhaul of trade rules in Northern Ireland, a breakthrough aimed at resetting seriously strained relations since Brexit.
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen adopted the deal at talks in Windsor, west of London, both sides said.
Their meeting followed more than a year of tense negotiations over the "Northern Ireland Protocol", which has unsettled the province 25 years on from a historic peace deal that ended three decades of armed conflict.
Agreed in 2020 as part of Britain's EU divorce, the pact kept the province in the European single market for physical goods and subject to different customs rules than the rest of the UK, angering pro-UK unionists there and eurosceptics in London.
The UK government had threatened a unilateral overhaul of the protocol unless the EU agreed to wholesale changes, souring diplomatic ties and risking a wider trade war, but that prospect now appears to be receding.
I believe the Windsor Framework marks a turning point for the people of Northern Ireland. This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship. We may have had our differences in the past but we are allies, trading partners and friends
"I'm looking forward to turning a page and opening a new chapter with our partner and friend," von der Leyen said as she left Brussels ahead of the talks.
The EU chief was also set to meet King Charles III while in Windsor, stoking accusations in the UK that Sunak was trying to project royal endorsement of the expected deal.
The ECJ will have the final say on EU law and single market issues
It is likely to face opposition from Brexiteers, including Sunak's potentially rebellious predecessor Boris Johnson, and from lawmakers representing the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland.
Sunak's spokesman insisted the monarch's meeting with von der Leyen was decided by Buckingham Palace.
When Britain left the EU, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to a deal that effectively left Northern Ireland in the bloc's single market for goods because of its open border with EU member Ireland, creating a customs border with mainland Britain.
The British government has wanted to reduce the number of checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.
The two sides have agreed to separate goods just going to Northern Ireland and those which will continue into the EU into "green" and "red" lanes.
This is designed to reduce the paperwork facing companies that have said they were unable to provide a full range of products to Northern Ireland because the number of checks were too onerous.
Under the earlier deal agreed with the EU, Northern Ireland followed some of the bloc's laws so that goods flow freely over the border with Ireland without checks.
Sunak said the Northern Ireland Assembly will now be able to "pull an emergency brake" on any changes to EU rules and the UK government will "have a veto".
VALUE ADDED TAX
Businesses in Northern Ireland currently follow EU rules on value-added tax (VAT). This means tax breaks by British government payments to help firms in Northern Ireland must be compliant with rules set by the EU.
Under the new deal, the British government will have freedom to set VAT in the province.
Under a trade agreement signed at the end of 2020, Britain negotiated access to a range of science and innovation programmes including Horizon, a 95.5 billion euro programme that offers grants and projects to researchers.
But 18 months on, Britain says the EU has yet to finalise access to Horizon, Copernicus, the earth observation programme on climate change, Euratom, the nuclear research programme, and to services such as Space Surveillance and Tracking.
Von der leyen said once the new deal is implemented work would begin on restarting Britain's cooperation with Horizon.
"This is good news for all those who are working in research and science," she said.
Sunak and von der Leyen, who met at the Fairmont Hotel in Windsor, are due to hold a short mid-afternoon press conference. The UK leader - who only took power in October - will then make a statement to parliament scheduled for 6:30 pm (1830 GMT).
The agreement ends a long chapter of talks between London and Brussels, under the direction of three different British prime ministers and the cloud of the war in Ukraine.
It is seen as long overdue to help stabilise both Northern Ireland and the wider UK's post-Brexit relationship with its European partners.
The protocol has faced staunch opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-UK party in Northern Ireland, which argues that it threatens the province's place within the UK.
London has been pressing Brussels to agree a "green", check-free lane for goods coming from the rest of the UK that are intended to stay in Northern Ireland, without heading into Ireland and the EU's single market.
The deal would also reportedly limit, but not scrap, oversight of the protocol by the EU's European Court of Justice.
The DUP is particularly angered by the prospect of EU law retaining a role in Northern Ireland, and its response in turn could determine how Conservative eurosceptics in London react.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who has been refusing to re-enter a power-sharing government in Belfast set to be led by pro-Irish nationalists, tweeted that the party would "take our time to consider the detail".
Former cabinet minister and Johnson loyalist Jacob Rees-Mogg told ITV: "I'm not sure he (Sunak) has achieved the objective of getting the DUP back into power-sharing, which is the fundamental point of it."
"We will not snipe. We will not seek to play political games, and when the Prime Minister puts this deal forward for a vote, Labour will vote for it," he told parliament.
The UK, which is grappling with low economic growth and its worst cost-of-living crisis in a generation, is seen as eager to reset relations to boost trade.
The government in London is also under pressure to restore power-sharing in Belfast, with the 25th anniversary of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement looming large.
Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since February last year due to the DUP's boycott.
In the Northern Irish border city of Newry, some residents were eager for a breakthrough and the restoration of power-sharing.
"We need things to get going again, we need to get this sorted out," Vincent Ward, 53, told AFP.
Joe O'Hanlon, 63, added it was "about time" that elected leaders "got their act together".