There are many different bench-marks against which the Windsor Framework Agreement can be measured. By the standards of recent British politics, however, it is a rare glimmer of light. By negotiating behind closed doors, Prime Minister Sunak has blind-sided the European Research Group (ERG), the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and his venal predecessor-but-one, whose wimpish comments that the UK was no longer “taking back control” sounded like a record stuck in a groove.
Implications for Great Britain
The most important aspect of this agreement (assuming it is implemented) for those of us not living in Northern Ireland, is that it will avoid Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill becoming law. This, shamefully, would have allowed the UK to unilaterally renege on the Protocol, an important part of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA).
Such action would have plunged us into a trade war with, by far, our largest trading partner, namely the EU. Whether it will also bury the disastrous Retained EU Law Bill, which would make it far more difficult for the UK to regain market access to the EU, as it would remove the significant extent of alignment of regulations and standards which remains, seems less likely at present.
What could Windsor mean for Northern Ireland?
The mess in Northern Ireland was entirely created by Johnson’s choice of a ‘hard Brexit’ and his cavalier attitude to the need to preserve the Good Friday peace agreement of April 1998, which removed a divisive hard border on the island of Ireland. The recent armed attack on an off-duty police officer in Omagh demonstrated how near to the surface sectarian-based violence remains in Northern Ireland.
The Windsor Framework eases aspects of the border arrangements under the Protocol agreed by Johnson to facilitate “getting Brexit done”. It sets up “green” and “red” lanes for goods heading respectively to Northern Ireland and the Republic (which is in the EU’s single market). The role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) will be more limited.
The Framework also provides a carefully constructed ‘Stormont brake‘ on any significant new EU rules on goods, objected to by a group of 30 Assembly Members (MLAs) from at least two parties, which would then be referred to the Joint Committee which oversees the operation of the Protocol.
In agreeing to these provisions, the EU Commission has displayed more flexibility than many thought possible. The Framework can therefore potentially provide a pathway back to the reopening of power sharing at Stormont.
Will Windsor be blocked by the DUP or the ERG?
The DUP may delay their acquiescence, as local elections are due in May and they fear being out-flanked by Unionist Voice and other hard-line elements. However, ultimately they need devolved government to work, as otherwise their raison d’être is removed. Furthermore, a political void has been created by the collapse of power-sharing. This followed the election held on 5 May 2022, when Sinn Fein got the biggest share of the vote and therefore the right to appoint the First Minister. Since then there have been several postponements of new Assembly elections the latest being, potentially, to April 2024.
As for the ERG, they have been making a lot of noise about being in ‘lock-step’ with the DUP, but the latter care less about a minor role for the ECJ than do the former. As quoted in the Financial Times, one Eurosceptic Tory MP said: “There is always a risk of zealots in the Tory party that want to go further than unionists.”
No. 10 meanwhile has signalled that the deal will go ahead whether or not power-sharing is restored in Northern Ireland. Sunak has also indicated that a Parliamentary vote at Westminster will be held (although it is not required). Even if the ERG withholds its support, Starmer has pledged Labour’s vote in favour of the agreement. However, my guess is that, in the event, Sunak will probably not need it.
Additional gains for the UK
Commission President von der Leyen has agreed that implementation of the deal will also result in: the UK’s readmission as an ‘associate member’ of the EU’s huge Horizon Science programme (if the UK government wishes to take it up); agreement to a ‘memorandum of understanding’ between financial services regulators and closer links between the British and EU energy markets.
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Relations with the US
A further big UK gain from agreeing the Windsor Framework has been the warm reception it has received in Washington where officials have called for trade talks to start between the UK and the US. President Biden, a self-identified Irishman, thought little of the divisive behaviour of Johnson and his crew of idealogues. The 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement falls in April. As a direct result of the Windsor agreement, a visit by Biden to both Belfast and Dublin next month is now being considered.
What’s good for the goose…
Sunak may possibly live to regret being caught on camera earnestly praising the advantages of Northern Ireland’s ability to benefit from trading with “both the UK internal Market (the 5th largest in the world) and the EU single market” (6 times that of the UK). Great Britain was also in that happy position until we left the EU as a result of Brexit. Sunak has been accused of being a “closet Remainer” on Twitter. His ability to capitalise on the Framework to continue to develop closer ties with the EU may be constrained by the need to hold his party together.
According to a recent poll of polls posted by Professor Sir John Curtice on 5 January 2023, just 43 per cent of the UK electorate are now saying they would vote to stay out of the EU while 57 per cent would back re-joining. This contrasts with the 52:48 percent in favour of ‘Leave’ in 2016. Around one third of this change can be accounted for by demography, as more pro-European young people join the relevant cohort of the population.
In addition to the public’s growing awareness of the damaging economic impacts of Brexit, the war in Ukraine has also demonstrated the need for UK/EU cooperation, as the security of so-called “global Britain” is ultimately dependent upon that of Western Europe.
Politicians lagging behind the people?
So far this change in public opinion is not reflected in the position of UK political parties. The current composition of the Conservative party is likely to limit Sunak’s ability to capitalise further on improved relations with the EU. It would be naive to think that Brexit can be reversed in the short term, especially while both major political parties are split and fear reopening the “civil war” caused by Brexit.
The Labour Party seems to think that it can solve Brexit through sectoral deals. This would never have been contemplated in the past by the EU. However, Russia’s war, and applications by Ukraine and other neighbouring countries to join the Union, mean that its institutions are being forced to review its enlargement policies and procedures. The tectonic plates are shifting and our politicians need to respond accordingly.