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Stephen Booth is an Associate Fellow in Political Economy at the Council on Geostrategy.
The ERG and the DUP’s legal experts may still be poring over the details of the Windsor Framework, and there will be a vote in Parliament before it is formally enacted. But the Government has both the numbers and the determination to see the proposed overhaul of the Northern Ireland Protocol stick.
Not only is the deal a vast improvement on the status quo. Realistically, it is the only deal likely to be on offer. The Prime Minister rightly deserves the credit for concluding a deal, but those citing the contrast in approach with his predecessors are overdoing it. Unfortunately, the confrontation of the past was necessary because the EU was previously unwilling to countenance sensible compromises.
Meanwhile, the alternative to this deal – proceeding with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill – is a further deterioration of relations with Brussels. Rishi Sunak has recognised when the law of diminishing returns applies, and that the EU has belatedly, but indisputably, offered an olive branch.
Opponents of the deal will be able to find objections if they wish. The deal will significantly reduce the economic border in the Irish Sea, but some formalities will remain. EU regulation will continue to apply to Northern Ireland – though the deal reduces its impact on East-West trade via the Green Lane – and the European Court of Justice continues to retain jurisdiction over EU law where it applies to Northern Ireland.
However, the deal will remove most practical hindrances to East-West trade. More importantly, with the inclusion of the “Stormont Brake”, 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. 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.
Rather than a top-down approach of strictly adhering to swathes of the EU’s rulebook, the Windsor Framework finally reflects the reality that implementing Brexit in Northern Ireland is a politically complex process, which requires the participation of both communities, the UK, and the EU working pragmatically through practical economic and political challenges. Ultimately, the EU has conceded that it overreached and that its preferred solution was unworkable.
This offers an important opportunity for a reset.
For the Government, and with Keir Starmer’s Labour Party having accepted the fundamentals of the Brexit settlement reached by Boris Johnson, the open Brexit sore risked turning from an electoral asset into a liability. The argument that Brexit is “done” now has greater credibility, even if the wider UK-EU relationship will always be work in progress. Not necessarily a reason in itself, reaching a settlement should also benefit international perceptions of the UK, notably in the White House and among international investors who have understandably under-priced the UK throughout the political turbulence following the 2016 referendum.
For the EU, following the political turmoil in Northern Ireland, perhaps there was a realisation that its claim to the moral high ground was foundering. Meanwhile, the fear of Brexit contagion to other member states has passed. More importantly, Russia’s war against Ukraine has focussed minds within several member states and has revealed the EU’s geostrategic limits.
The French post-Brexit vision of an EU with geopolitical “strategic autonomy” always seemed a difficult sell, but Russia’s invasion has punctured the fantasy. The EU’s most vulnerable members have looked to NATO – and, in the case of Sweden and Finland, the UK in particular – to guarantee their security. Both countries are also members of the UK-led Joint Expeditionary Force. Left out of Franco-German development of the next generation Euro-fighter jet in 2017, the UK is now teaming up with Italy and Japan to develop an alternative.
In the economic sphere, agreement on the Windsor Framework unlocks UK access to the EU’s research and development programmes, which the EU had withheld up to now. But there are several other ways in which relations could be improved for mutual benefit without altering the fundamentals of the Brexit settlement reached in 2020 – namely, UK independence from the Single Market and Customs Union.
For instance, a Memorandum of Understanding on financial services regulation has also been delayed due to the political stalemate over Northern Ireland. Other technical trade frictions could be eased without either side drastically compromising on their own sovereignty. And a new youth mobility scheme would improve cultural links and help address labour shortages in professions such as hospitality.
In summary, it is time to move beyond the regional squabble and recognise the global context. While the UK and EU’s member states have chosen different methods of governance, they share the challenge of operating in an increasingly competitive and bipolar world dominated by the US-China rivalry.
And the value of the EU’s strength in numbers is less than often assumed. For example, SoftBank’s choice of New York for the listing of British chip designer Arm has led to predictable hand-wringing about London’s decline, but this is a story of US strength in comparison with Europe, not a uniquely British problem. In the same week, German chemical giant Linde, previously the most valuable company on the DAX index, chose to delist from the Frankfurt exchange in favour of a sole listing in New York.
This week marks the first bilateral Franco-British summit for five years, providing a further opportunity to normalise an important European relationship. Most obviously, the French remain an integral factor in the Prime Minister’s mission to stop the small boats. But the French need Britain too. Paris can position itself as the natural leader of EU defence policy if it likes, but the war against Ukraine has illustrated that “European” defence initiatives are not credible without the British and/or the Americans.
The UK has responded positively to Emmanuel Macron’s proposed European Political Community, offering to host its next meeting. The aim should be to provide a forum in which the UK, the EU, and other European nations, can discuss European cooperation on security and European economic resilience as “sovereign equals” rather than merely as junior partners to the EU.
Throughout its EU membership, the UK’s contribution to European security and as a transatlantic bridge was undervalued by many of our closest partners in the EU. This was partly a failure of UK diplomacy, but more to do with the EU’s post-Cold War complacency. The UK now has an opportunity to rebuild its post-Brexit relationships with Europe, and it should be self-confident in asserting that there is more than one way to be a “good European”.