This week’s United Kingdom (UK)-European Union (EU) deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol is a diplomatic coup for Rishi Sunak, the Prime Minister. Long in the making, it heralds the opportunity for the UK and the EU to enter a new, more constructive phase of their post-Brexit relationship.
Implementing Brexit in Northern Ireland has been the biggest source of tension between the UK and the EU since 2016. Much has and will be written about how the Protocol came into being. Early mistakes made in the negotiations by Theresa May’s Government contributed. Boris Johnson’s administration opted for an arm’s-length form of trading relationship with the EU, which made some degree of border control inevitable. But, chiefly, Brussels and Dublin exploited internal UK division over Brexit to prioritise EU interests and the North-South relationship on the island of Ireland over preserving the delicate balance of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA).
The GFA rests on the premise that both communities’ can express their political identities, be they Irish, British, or both, without this being at the expense of the other. So, for many Unionists, the Protocol’s impact on East-West trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland was not simply a practical matter of new customs declarations to fill in or the absence of English sausages – they felt their identity being subjugated. Given the history of Northern Ireland, this could not end well.
Sunak rightly deserves the credit he is getting for concluding this deal, given that he must manage a significant minority in the Conservative Party with little interest in difficult compromises. However, highlighting the contrast between Sunak’s pragmatism and Johnson’s apparent, and at times genuine, recklessness suits those who would rather gloss over the EU’s own mistakes in this process.
Initially, the EU was reluctant to accept that the Protocol was causing problems. Then it insisted that, despite the problems, the text of the Protocol could not be reopened. However, under this deal, the EU has indeed accepted amendments to the Protocol text, including several proposals made by the UK which date back to the May Government.
So, what took them so long? Clearly, the Democratic Unionist Party’s (DUP) decision last year to collapse the Stormont institutions underlined that the Protocol was undermining rather than supporting the objectives of the GFA. The war against Ukraine and the UK’s strong commitment to Europe’s security has undoubtedly underlined to many EU states that Europe has bigger fish to fry than perpetuating a running sore with the British. Meanwhile, with time, the fear that Brexit would undermine the EU’s own cohesion has passed.
Whatever the EU’s reasons, the new Windsor Framework provides welcome changes in three main areas.
First, it ensures significantly smoother trade within the UK’s internal market, particularly on Northern Irish imports of goods from Great Britain where the original Protocol had placed the greatest frictions. Customs processes will be reduced considerably, and UK standards can be used for food and drink sold in Northern Ireland.
Second, there are wider regulatory changes to remove day-to-day differences between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. For example, Northern Ireland will benefit from the same Value Added Tax and alcohol duties as apply in the rest of the UK, rather than having to abide by EU rules. Medicines approved for use in Britain can also now be sold in the region even if not yet approved in the EU. Additionally, seed potatoes and plants banned from being imported because they might carry disease can now be moved freely to Northern Ireland based on a special plant health label.
Agreement on the Windsor Framework should mark the end of Brexit’s most tumultuous and turbulent chapter, which benefits everyone involved.
Third, and most significant politically, the Windsor Framework gives Northern Ireland greater democratic say in how EU law applies to it. If the EU proposes new rules or amendments to existing legislation applicable under the Protocol, the new ‘Stormont Brake’ enables 30 members from at least two parties of the Stormont Assembly to raise a ‘petition of concern’ – a safeguard procedure adopted under the GFA to protect the rights of minorities.
If the brake is pulled, the EU rule in question will be suspended from coming into effect until a political or independent legal arbitration process has concluded between the UK and the EU. Therefore, Brussels and Dublin have accepted the principle that Northern Irish divergence from the Single Market is possible in future if Unionists feel that alignment with the EU will create unacceptable barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The ‘Stormont Brake’ reflects the fact that peace in Northern Ireland cannot be imposed from outside. It is a messy and continuous political process requiring the participation of both communities.
So far, so good. But will the deal stick? The deal has landed well with the vast majority of the Conservative Party but hard-line Eurosceptics in the European Research Group and, more importantly, the DUP have yet to pronounce on whether they will support it. The deal is not perfect from a Unionist perspective. For example, some checks will remain on goods crossing the Irish Sea. Therefore, the DUP’s reaction is difficult to predict, but they have an opportunity to claim victory and argue that their decision to exit Stormont has been vindicated by the EU’s willingness to make concessions. Nevertheless, Sunak probably has enough political support amongst his own ranks that he could ride out continued DUP intransigence and call Stormont elections in Northern Ireland.
Ultimately, London and Brussels would like to move toward advancing a stable and constructive UK-EU relationship. In the short-term this could unlock win-win research and science cooperation under the EU’s Horizon Programme. In the medium-term there are trade frictions between the UK and the EU that could be eased without fundamentally altering the Brexit settlement reached in the 2020 Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). More broadly, Europe would benefit from a thaw in relations, with the UK and the EU prepared to engage in the strategic challenges facing the continent. Most obviously, this includes the threat emanating from Russia, but it also concerns Europe’s wider economic resilience and the transition to green energy where the United States is increasingly turning inward.
For the UK itself, this deal could send an important global signal that the domestic political turmoil of the Brexit years is over. Relations with the White House will also be warmer as a result. Meanwhile, the UK has understandably been under-priced by investors, so domestic political stability and better neighbourly relations should provide an economic dividend.
Brexit will never be ‘done’ in the absolute sense. There are important dates on the horizon, including a 2024 Stormont vote on whether to renew the Protocol and the TCA is scheduled for review in 2025. However, agreement on the Windsor Framework should mark the end of Brexit’s most tumultuous and turbulent chapter, which benefits everyone involved.
Stephen Booth is an Associate Fellow in Political Economy at the Council on Geostrategy.
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