Rishi Sunak has said his new deal heralds a new era of UK–EU relations. Putting it into practice will need this new spirit of cooperation to continue – on both sides
The Windsor Framework is a welcome improvement on Johnson’s deal
Rishi Sunak’s statement to parliament on Monday night laid out, in painful detail, the shortcomings in the previous Northern Ireland protocol deal Boris Johnson hailed as “great” in October 2019. And the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson was right to say that many of his party’s concerns about the practicalities of that deal had been vindicated.
It is to Sunak’s credit that he has forced the EU to move beyond simply blaming the UK for signing up without thinking to a deal that did interfere with day-to-day life in Northern Ireland. The negotiators have managed to find a series of compromises that effectively split the infamous ‘Irish Sea border’ into a hard border for goods going into the EU and a much less visible one for goods staying in Northern Ireland. There will be some tricky details to navigate – and effective implementation will depend on both sides carrying on in the spirit of cooperation that was so evident yesterday.
An agreement naturally involves compromise, but the UK got something on nearly all of its asks
The prime minister likes to see himself as a problem solver – and that is what this deal represents. Rather than take refuge in the absolutist belligerence of his predecessor(s), Sunak and his team have gone, line by line, through the concerns people and businesses have expressed about how the Johnson protocol, had it ever been implemented in full, would have affected them. Some of the proposals are not a million miles away from the EU’s offer in October 2021; others reflect asks from the UK in David Frost's command paper of June that year.
But on almost every issue the UK can point to concrete changes that address most of the problems the original protocol raised and in some areas – most notably on the ‘Stormont Brake’ and reducing the amount of EU law that applies – went further than many were expecting.
What the agreement does not do – and by Sunak’s own admittance, cannot do – is totally protect Northern Ireland from the consequences of the sort of Brexit the UK government chose for the rest of the UK. Staying in the single market for goods inevitably means some EU rules apply – and the EU inevitably insists on some remaining role for the European Court of Justice (ECJ) as the final arbiter of EU law. Precedent shows that any attempt to remove the ECJ altogether would have surely thwarted any deal. But it is now in both sides interest to make sure that that role is unobtrusive.
Investing in relationships and building trust has paid dividends
Many in parliament will want to claim that it was the threat of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the aggressive stance of Johnson, Frost then Truss that laid the groundwork for yesterday’s deal. But few in the EU ever believed the UK would engage in the act of self-harm that enacting the bill would have inflicted on its fragile economy and tarnished international reputation. But they can probably claim credit in another way.
It was evident from the warmth of yesterday’s press conference that the EU was simply relieved to find a prime minister, and team in the shape of James Cleverly and Chris Heaton-Harris, who were prepared to negotiate rather than grandstand – and they took the risk that together they could sell the deal to the parliamentary Conservative party. The EU could only move when it was clear that a British government would not simply pocket a concession and then move the goalposts again. Diplomacy, and diplomatic skill, won out yesterday.
Only a deal can provide the certainty and stability that Northern Ireland needs
Much of the parliamentary Conservative party seems to want to rally behind the deal. The ERG will find details they dislike in the fine print. The people with the hardest decision to take are the DUP – already being outflanked in opposition by Traditional Unionist Voice. But ultimately the DUP have to recognise, short of the UK re-joining the single market and the EU customs union, this is as good as it is going to get for them. They should similarly realise that the alternative – of resurrecting the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – offers no solution at all. The only long-lasting solution had to be a negotiated one, and people in Northern Ireland are eager to see functioning government restored.
But the DUP could and should make some demands of the British government. The Stormont brake offers MLAs the chance to say no to disruptive EU change: Westminster has offered no equivalent on potential UK divergence – something that will loom large if the Retained EU Law Bill, back in the Lords on Thursday, proceeds as drafted. If the DUP is genuinely concerned about different rules applying in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, it should also push the UK government for assurances of how it will prevent harmful divergence arising from changes to UK or England regulation if the government insists on proceeding with the bill.
Nonetheless, the framework goes a long way to solving the problems created by the original protocol, all while retaining the benefits of access to the EU single market. It could lay the groundwork for a more prosperous and politically stable Northern Ireland – but the hard work is not over yet.