May 19. 2024. 2:00

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Sunak tells Brussels – ‘The grown ups are back in charge’

That was the unmistakable subtext of UK premier Rishi Sunak’s joint press conference with European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen on Monday (27 February) as they set out the terms of the so-called ‘Windsor Framework’, the potential successor to the Northern Ireland protocol.

This is comfortably Sunak’s biggest diplomatic moment since becoming Prime Minister last October and it was carefully choreographed. The substance of the deal was carved out by EU and UK officials over a week ago. Von der Leyen left the press conference for afternoon tea with King Charles in nearby Windsor Palace to put the literal icing on the cake.

Sunak, meanwhile, received a hero’s welcome several hours later when he presented the collection of texts that comprise the Windsor Framework to the House of Commons.

It’s rare that a UK Prime Minister presents a deal that immediately gets cross-party support. That was what Sunak got. First, Labour leader Keir Starmer promised to deliver his party’s votes in favour of the agreement guaranteeing a big majority in favour even if hard core Conservative Brexiteers vote against it. The Scottish National Party gave their support, and so did Ed Davey, leader of the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland affairs committee, remarked that the deal “shows what serious people and serious minds can achieve,” another pointed rebuke of Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.

Their predecessor Theresa May called for cross-party support. Johnson, perhaps unsurprisingly, was conspicuously absent from the debate.

However, as the debate in the House of Commons dragged into Monday night it became increasingly clear that the Democratic Unionist Party, whose support for the new proposal is crucial if the Windsor Framework is to lead to a new power-sharing government in Northern Ireland, is a long way from giving its consent.

“In broad terms there has been progress on a number of fronts,” said DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson. But he expressed concern that EU law will remain applicable in some sectors and . left the door open for “further clarifications”. Several other DUP lawmakers criticised the proposed deal.

The successor to the protocol is intended to address the problems faced by businesses in and trading with Northern Ireland. But it is also needs to have cross-community support from the Irish nationalist and British unionists in order to break the impasse in the Northern Ireland assembly that has refused to form a government since last May’s elections because of the DUP’s opposition to the protocol.

The ‘Windsor Framework’ contains some obvious compromises from both sides and several that are more surprising in their ambition.

The introduction of ‘green’ and ‘red’ lanes for goods staying in Northern Ireland or going to the Republic had been agreed many weeks ago.

Officials say that goods transported by trusted traders and which are not at risk of entering the EU single market will benefit from “dramatically simplified procedures and drastically simplified declarations with reduced data requirements”. Sunak is selling the new regime as the end of the border across the Irish Sea and the introduction of the dual regulatory code that the UK has wanted from the start of the process.

Meanwhile, the so-called ‘Stormont brake’ is being sold in Westminster as the biggest single concession obtained from the EU.

This mechanism is more complex than it seems at first glance.

Should at least 30 members of the Northern Ireland assembly from two parties or more oppose the introduction of new EU single market rules that would block the change. That was sold as a veto on future EU law by Sunak and was clearly designed to be lapped up by Brexiteers. In practice, it is far from a simple process. The block by lawmakers in Belfast would lead to an arbitration panel being formed, eventually involving the European Court of Justice. Taken to its ultimate conclusion, should Northern Irish lawmakers refuse to apply a new EU law that would effectively end Northern Ireland’s access to the single market.

The ‘brake’ can only be used if it “concerns elements such as the significant impact on the everyday lives of communities in Northern Ireland” language which is distinctly vague.

“For the EU the value of the deal is the deal itself. It will result in a significant improvement of the status quo in Northern Ireland as far as we’re concerned. And thirdly, this will help normalise EU-UK relations,” said an EU official.

In one significant break from Boris Johnson’s tendency to over hype and oversell, Sunak did not try to pretend that there will be no role for EU law or the European Court of Justice, which has long been an unlikely bogeyman for eurosceptics.

“As long as the people of Northern Ireland want to support their businesses having access to the single market without a hard border, then there will be some role for EU law,” Sunak told MPs.

Another subtext was that this agreement marks a vast improvement over anything that Boris Johnson and his Brexit minister David Frost ever managed. Indeed, it’s clear that the Commission would never have made the concessions to them that are now on offer to Sunak.

“The mood music has been much better. And our work has been much more constructive,” an EU official said of negotiations with Sunak compared to his predecessors.

In public and private briefings on Monday, both sides talked up the prospect of ‘partnership’ and looking forward. That will mean UK researchers and universities finally getting access to Horizon Europe funding within weeks.

“What is the absolute minimum involved to avoid a hard border,” Sunak asked his MPs, adding that the deal on offer would scrap 97% of the EU laws being operated in Northern Ireland.

That pragmatism was alien language to Johnson and Truss. So, too, was the good faith shown in tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol bill with the result that the EU will abandon its legal action against the UK.

After years of chaos, EU-UK relations may be returning to some semblance of normality.

(Benjamin Fox |