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European Commission president’s trip to UK cancelled as protocol talks go on

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is no longer expected to travel to the UK to meet Rishi Sunak on Saturday, Government sources have confirmed.

After having “positive” discussions with the Prime Minister on Friday, Ms von der Leyen was expected to arrive in Britain for further in-person talks about the Northern Ireland Protocol.

According to Sky News, the commission leader was also scheduled to meet the King at Windsor Castle while in the UK on Saturday.

The broadcaster’s report said the meeting could have been interpreted as Charles “endorsing the deal” that the Prime Minister is attempting to negotiate with the European Union in order to solve Brexit-related issues.

UK Government sources said Ms von der Leyen was no longer expected to travel to Britain.

But they stressed it would not have been improper for the King, as head of state, to have met a visiting European leader.

“It would be wrong to suggest the King would be involved in anything remotely political,” a Government source told the PA news agency.

Buckingham Palace said it would not be commenting.

No 10 said talks between Mr Sunak and Ms von der Leyen would occur within the coming days, without being more exact on timings.

White smoke appeared to be on the horizon over a protocol fix after a Downing Street source said a phone call between the Prime Minister and the President on Friday had been “positive” and there had been “good progress” made.

King Charles
The King was said to be due to meet the European Commission president at Windsor before it was called off (Victoria Jones/PA)

No 10 sources also confirmed that Mr Sunak on Friday had “constructive engagement” with supermarket bosses and parcel operators about the protocol and the reforms he is striving to make.

They were developments that were interpreted as another step towards announcing a deal which is designed to reduce the customs headaches being encountered by retailers trading between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

Speculation of an imminent deal increased further when it emerged Tory MPs were being ordered into Parliament on a three-line whip on Monday, while Cabinet ministers were reportedly on alert for a possible conference call over the weekend.

Unusually, Downing Street declined to set out Mr Sunak’s plans for the weekend, only saying that he was working in No 10 on Friday.

The protocol, signed by former prime minister Boris Johnson in 2020, was designed to prevent a hard border with Ireland after Brexit by effectively keeping Northern Ireland in the European Union’s single market.

But the treaty has incensed unionists due to the trade barriers it has created between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Cop27 summit
Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke to European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Friday (Steve Reigate/Daily Express/PA)

Mr Sunak had reportedly been keen to announce a deal this week but No 10 said on Friday that “intensive negotiations” with Brussels were still under way.

Any announcement of a deal is expected to set up a possible clash with Conservative Brexit hardliners.

Mr Sunak has promised that the House of Commons will be able to “express its view” over any deal, which he hopes will get the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to restore powersharing in Northern Ireland.

But he would come under intense pressure if he does not give MPs an explicit vote, amid fears there could be a rebellion.

The Prime Minister, since entering No 10 in October, has backed away from reforms on contentious issues such as planning rules when confronted with a potential backbench revolt.

Foreign Secretary James Cleverly indicated that ministers will not sign off a deal over the protocol until the DUP’s concerns are addressed.

The DUP has issued seven tests to win its backing for any deal, including addressing what it calls the “democratic deficit” of Northern Ireland being subject to EU rules while not having a say on them.

Mr Cleverly said “important principles”, like Northern Ireland’s “place as an integral part of the United Kingdom”, were central to the cross-Channel negotiations.

He told Times Radio: “When, hopefully, we get those issues resolved, then I would hope that the DUP would recognise that we’ve addressed their concerns and until we have addressed those concerns we’re not going to sign off on the deal.”