March 4. 2024. 6:49

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A Brexit reset at last: Northern Ireland protocol deal points to better EU-UK relations


It has taken the threat of a return to political violence in Northern Ireland and the actual return of all-out war to Europe. Three years after the United Kingdom left the European Union, there’s been a shift in the political mood and potentially much more than that. It seems the British government has abandoned the spirit of enmity that too often informed its approach in the final months of negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship.

The EU has perhaps moved on too, from the implacable negotiating position it often adopted when dealing with a departing member state. A spirit of calmness and consistency was entirely appropriate when dealing with a UK government that was underprepared, often did not know what it wanted and sometimes was just plain rude.

But that was then. Now both sides need to recognise that, as close neighbours, they need to cooperate to deal with shared problems and to grasp mutual opportunities. From that point of view, Northern Ireland is an excellent place to start.

It’s worth noting that the EU side in the Brexit negotiations was quite interested in the idea of a red and green lane solution for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK. It was put forward by the province’s civil servants but Theresa May’s government insisted that those talks were broken off.

But even if the EU negotiators had conceded that goods from England, Scotland and Wales could enter Northern Ireland virtually unchecked, if not bound for the Republic, they would not have liked it. Instead it would have been another of those points where the EU was left thinking it had been over-generous, even as its generosity was being condemned as a trap by Brexit hardliners at Westminster.

It is hard to imagine Steve Baker, then of the militantly hardline European Research Group but now a minister at the Northern Ireland Office, describing at the time qqqq1such a plan as “a really fantastic result for everyone involved”. Yet, that is how he welcomed the news that von der Leyen and Sunak were about to agree a deal.

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In fairness, he told the Conservative party some months ago that he owed an apology for the way he had behaved towards Ireland and the EU during the Brexit process. To quote Steve Baker directly, he said that he and others did not “always behave in a way which encouraged Ireland and the European Union to trust us to accept that they have legitimate interests”.

Not that everyone has moved on. Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister who actually agreed to the Northern Ireland protocol, is still championing the idea that the UK could unilaterally abandon it. Much as he abandoned Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party after telling its conference that he would never accept the very deal he later agreed with the Irish Taoiseach.

The Democratic Unionists sometimes appear unreasonable, in fact they’re rather proud of that reputation. That does not mean they are wrong to be suspicious of whatever a British Prime Minister agrees with Dublin and Brussels. Nevertheless, they might have to accept that it is not always all about them.

Rishi Sunak’s approach has been to take on board the DUP’s ‘seven tests’ for what would be acceptable to them but decline to involve them in the details of the negotiations. There was never going to be a repeat of when Prime Minister Theresa May was about to reach a deal with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, only for the leader of the Democratic Unionists to phone her and call a halt.

There are other priorities for the UK government. They include unblocking British universities’ participation in the EU’s Horizon programme, increasing cooperation on migration issues and ensuring a successful visit by US President Joe Biden to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

In future, other issues such as the UK rejoining the Erasmus study scheme or the EU easing work visa restrictions might come into play, especially if there’s a change of British government. The Labour party backed the agreement reached at Windsor without even waiting to read it.

Symbolism matters. Biden’s potential visit shows that, as does the decision to invite Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor, so that tea with King Charles could round off her day. Granting the Commission President a royal audience might impress some Unionists, who are vocally loyal to the British Crown. Their political leaders see it more as an attempt to bounce them into supporting the agreement.

But it is a wider signal to the British people that the relationship with the EU is being reset. It might even be a faint echo of Edward VII’s meeting with the French President in 1903. That began the ‘Entente Cordiale’, the process that ended nearly 90 years of British ‘splendid isolation’ from the affairs of continental Europe.

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