Since Britain’s exit from the EU in 2020, special trading rules for Northern Ireland have been the source of rancour and division. The so-called Northern Ireland protocol was poorly negotiated, then partially disowned, then nearly overridden by the UK, threatening a trade war with the EU. Reforms to the protocol agreed by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak should not only ease trade but also set the UK on a more constructive relationship with the EU.
The “Windsor framework” negotiated with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen is a significant moment for post-Brexit Britain. A pragmatic prime minister has pushed for something he believes can bring beneficial results, defying hardline opponents in his party. With luck, the deal may yet begin a normalisation of UK-EU relations, and of UK politics.
Boris Johnson’s EU exit deal left Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single markets for goods, so checks were imposed on goods entering from Great Britain to avoid creating a destabilising land border with the south of the island. Resulting trade frictions made unionists, who want the region to stay in the UK, feel ties with Britain had been weakened.
Attempting to negotiate reforms was a hefty gamble for Sunak. Though he appears to have won over some prominent Brexiters, a hardcore of Eurosceptic Tory MPs may prove immovable. Labour has rightly signalled its backing for the prime minister’s agreement in a parliamentary vote, but will clearly make political capital out of Conservative divisions.
It is unclear if the Windsor framework goes far enough to be embraced by the Democratic Unionist party, which has boycotted power-sharing in Northern Ireland unless the protocol was renegotiated. So the agreement may yet fail to achieve the other big objective of returning devolved government to Belfast. But Sunak is correct to judge that the UK’s wider interests are better served by pressing ahead with his deal.
The prime minister appears to have achieved more than many in his own party had expected — a sign, perhaps, that he has built trust in Brussels. If it works as intended, Sunak can claim his deal ensures “smooth flowing trade” within the UK by creating a “green lane” at Irish Sea ports with minimal checks for goods destined for Northern Ireland, even if those heading for Ireland and the EU market must take a “red lane”. EU negotiators have moved less far on key legal points. But while the European Court of Justice retains the last word on single market issues in Northern Ireland, its role is limited, and London, not Brussels, will have control of value added tax and state aid in the region.
Crucially, the deal gives the Northern Ireland assembly an “emergency brake” on changes to EU goods rules with a “significant and lasting effect” on everyday lives — with a UK government veto if that brake is pulled. This provides a potential incentive for the DUP to engage with the Northern Ireland assembly, and could open it up to criticism if it does not.
The agreement moves the UK off a collision course with the EU, and towards a reset. Von der Leyen suggested work could quickly begin on the UK joining the €95bn Horizon programme, a huge prize for the scientific community. The deal may help Sunak to make progress on small boat crossings in the Channel when he meets France’s Emmanuel Macron next month.
Above all, in a Europe transformed by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the Windsor framework holds out the prospect of smoother engagement between London and EU partners. Assuming it can be navigated safely through Westminster, it may at last begin to drain some of the venom of the Brexit years.