Rishi Sunak’s deal with the EU may sort the important fraction of Brexit which concerns Northern Ireland. In doing so, it makes even starker the shitshow of Brexit for the rest of the UK. But maybe, just maybe, it suggests a way that this too can be sorted under a future government, by including Britain, which accounts for more than 95 per cent of the UK’s trade with the EU, in a similar Windsor-style agreement with the EU?
The “Windsor framework” is essentially the benign Brexit which Boris Johnson told us he had secured for Northern Ireland three years ago, but hadn’t. It gives NI relatively frictionless trade with both Ireland (in the EU) to the south, and with Britain to the east. The EU has agreed to forego most customs and regulatory checks on goods from GB intended solely for NI (these will travel in a “green lane”) and not for export to Ireland and the EU (where they will travel in a “red lane”).
This is Brexit for slow learners, in that wider “red lane” checks, which now apply to the generality of Britain’s trade with the EU, are the inevitable consequence of the UK leaving the EU customs union and single market. The hardline Brexiters, led by Johnson and his henchman David Frost, thought these red lane consequences could be simply wished away in their Brexit fantasyland of having their cake and eating it. But the reality of the checks—and the decimation of GB/NI trade—became all too real when Brexit actually happened two years ago. Hence the imperative for a new “green lane” if the United Kingdom is itself to remain a single market including Northern Ireland.
The other major change is the “Stormont brake”, enabling the Northern Ireland Assembly to object to new EU single market rules affecting the province. This power is perhaps more apparent than real, in that the EU might retaliate by excluding a category of NI goods entirely if it were exercised capriciously. But it could be a useful bargaining chip for Northern Ireland’s political and business leaders in negotiations over new single market rules, and it is a remarkable concession for the EU to make to a non-member state. The imperative to get the Northern Ireland Assembly functioning again, with DUP unionist participation, probably encouraged Ursula von der Leyen to rise to this generous act of statecraft.
All this is great for Northern Ireland. As Sunak said when selling the deal in Belfast, Northern Ireland is in “this very special position where it has access to the UK market, has access to the EU market, which makes it an incredibly attractive place to invest for businesses”.
The obvious retort is that the UK at large used to be this “incredibly attractive place to invest” until hard Brexit took Britain out of the single market. Wouldn’t it be great if this happy state of affairs could somehow be regained, by a similar Windsor agreement for the UK at large within the EU single market?
This idea is not flippant, for the Windsor framework has two features of special relevance to the Brexit arguments of the last decade. First, it doesn’t include the free movement of people within the EU single market rules applying to Northern Ireland, which goes to a key Brexit concern.
Secondly, thanks to the consent procedure for new single market rules included in the Stormont brake, Northern Ireland is not simply a “rule taker” from Brussels. This democratic concern was part of the Unionist objection to the original Northern Ireland Protocol. Reluctance to be a “rule taker” also inspired critiques of any notion that the UK at large might remain part of the EU single market. If a “Westminster brake” applied, maybe we could indeed have our cake and eat it—although it would require the wisdom of Solomon for the EU to grant such a “cakeist” concession to the UK at large.
Nonetheless, Windsor shows what can be achieved with good policy and goodwill on both sides, so don’t discount the dreams of a similar scenario for the entire UK. The first requirement is that Westminster leaders should want to regain the “incredibly attractive” proposition of single market access. And that may not take much longer, given the economic pain of Johnson’s hard Brexit.
However, back to Belfast. If the Windsor deal is so good, why is the DUP cutting up so rough? Ah, because no deal is good enough for the DUP. For rejoining the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive means the DUP will now have to play second fiddle to Sinn Féin, which—thanks partly to the DUP’s own stupidity on Brexit—has become the largest party in the Assembly. And the last thing the DUP wants is a Sinn Féin first minister in Stormont, pressing the case for a United Ireland within the EU.
But if the DUP now refuses to join the Assembly, by definition there can be no Stormont brake. Their bluff has been called.