Brexit: The Windsor Framework changes politics more than trade

It is not the negotiating masterclass that Sunak would have us believe. Most of its provisions were offered unilaterally by the EU in October 2021.

Mike Buckley is the director of the Independent Commission on UK-EU Relations and a former Labour Party adviser 

Whether the Windsor Framework, Rishi Sunak’s amendment to the Northern Ireland Protocol, is good or bad largely depends on your point of view.

If your perspective is that it falls far short of EU, single market and customs union membership, which it undoubtedly does, you will be disappointed. If, like the DUP, your preference is for Northern Ireland to be entirely free of EU rules and the oversight of the European Court of Justice (CJEU) you will be similarly aggrieved.

If, however, you view Brexit as a fact and the impasse over the existing Northern Ireland Protocol something which is causing undue harm to the people and economy of Northern Ireland, and is impeding the wider UK-EU relationship with consequences for trade, UK science and research, due to our enforced absence from Horizon Europe and lost collaboration on energy, climate change, security and more, you will view the framework as welcome and beneficial.

It is not the negotiating masterclass that Sunak would have us believe. Most of its provisions were offered unilaterally by the EU in October 2021.

Their version called what is now a green lane ‘express’ and there are doubtless differences on specific goods and needed paperwork, but the premise was the same: fewer checks on goods destined for Northern Ireland, full access to medicines from Great Britain, a bespoke solution for Northern Ireland on food, plant and animal health (sanitary and phytosanitary / SPS) and greater involvement of Northern Ireland stakeholders, including Stormont, in the operation of the Protocol.

The major difference is that where Boris Johnson rejected the EU’s offer as nowhere near enough, Sunak has accepted it and, to his UK audience, claimed the work as his own, something the EU seem entirely relaxed about.

In theory everyone gets what they want. Northern Ireland business leaders and Great British exporters face fewer hurdles to sell their wares and build their businesses. Northern Ireland consumers get British goods on their shelves and parcels in the mail.

The EU is assured that the UK will, finally, implement the Protocol and cease from threats to unilaterally disapply it, a promise proved by the UK’s belated construction of border posts and Sunak’s commitment to ditch Johnson’s international law breaking Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

Sunak gets to bury the hatchet with the EU, proving to his party and the public that he can do what Cameron, May, Johnson and Truss could not: move on from infighting in his party over Europe and build a cordial, collaborative working partnership with our European neighbours.

The first fruit of that partnership – renewed UK membership of Horizon Europe, the EU’s €96bn science programme – will safeguard UK science and research institutions and programmes for years to come. Damage has been done – the UK has lost two years of funding, collaborative relationships have atrophied, researchers and academics have abandoned the UK to be able to continue their work. But at least the damage has been limited.

Further ahead, Sunak will have an easier time building a common response to the issue of small boats crossing the Channel with the French.

Cooperation with the EU in other areas becomes more possible; there are moves for example to belatedly sign a memorandum of understanding on financial services which, while limited in its aims, would establish a joint UK-EU financial regulatory forum, a platform for regulators to resolve financial services issues. It will be easier to build cooperation in security and defence, much needed in light of the war in Ukraine.

Yet even those who have welcomed the Framework and the renewed friendship between the UK and EU must recognise its limits. It exists to make the Brexit agreements work as they were intended to, not to undermine or undo them.

For the rest of the UK Brexit remains a hard fact: the ongoing hit to GDP is still 5.5%, investment is down by 11%, goods trade by 7%. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement still makes trade in both goods and services far more expensive, onerous and time consuming than it once was. Even Northern Ireland has single market access only for goods, not services.

In some areas this week’s good news is balanced by bad. Readmission to Horizon Europe is a huge success but it comes just as British universities come to the end of their final round of European structural investment funds (Esif), which since 2014 have given £950m into at least 166 university-led projects in England and Wales with the aim of connecting academic research with business to drive economic growth.

Without that money, university leaders say projects that generate millions of pounds annually for the economy, and employ hundreds of people in cities from Swansea to Birmingham to Newcastle, will not survive.

Political gains too may be temporary. Sunak’s decision to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill prevents a trade war for now but his commitment to the Retained EU Law Bill, which if passed could see thousands of laws and regulations inherited from the UK’s period of EU membership scrapped or amended by the end of the year, could see a trade war begin within months.

The EU are aware that the scrapping of regulations on workers’ rights, food and airline safety, product standards and more could not only harm UK residents but also undermine UK commitments to maintain a level playing field. If they believe the UK has diverged too far they will respond, adding further costs to trade and harm our economy.

And while the DUP are yet to confirm their support or rejection of the Framework, or their decision on whether to re-enter Stormont, they and other unionists have seen through Sunak’s claim that it removes “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”. “It leaves us in a foreign customs code, and that’s why there will still be, despite what the prime minister has said, an Irish Sea border,” said the TUV’s Jim McAllister.

Unionists are similarly sceptical of the Stormont brake, sold by Sunak as enabling Stormont to wield a veto over new or amended EU law. It is “is not really a brake at all. It’s a delaying mechanism,” said DUP MP Sammy Wilson.

In reality the UK Government would have the final say over whether to veto a law, he said, predicting that it would be reluctant to do so due to being “fearful of the consequences of trade for the rest of the United Kingdom” and “retaliatory action” from the EU.

Despite these caveats, the framework is welcome. It brings to an end the war of words between the UK and EU that Johnson was so keen to continue, seeing in it a means to maintain his 2019 electoral coalition. It brings certainty to Northern Ireland and should boost investment, given business leaders can now with confidence put money into ventures which take advantage of its access to both UK and EU markets.

But it will not be the end of the story. It brings some practical changes to GB-NI trade, but will not remove altogether customs declarations, SPS or other restrictions. Trade from Liverpool to Belfast will not be like London to Leeds.

“A few years from now we will be back here again,” says one trade commentator, when we get a UK government “wanting to take a more independent legislative forward view of UK trade and regulation” or one that seeks to build a closer relationship with the EU.

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