28 Feb 2023

Political Insider: The Windsor Framework

The UK Government and the EU unveiled the Windsor Framework yesterday, the culmination of prolonged negotiations over the vexatious issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Andrew McQuillan, an Account Director in the MHP Group Public Affairs team, asks after years of wrangling and false dawns whether this is a game changing moment.

Andrew McQuillan
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The Merry Dealmakers of Windsor

The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the EU Commission, Ursula Von der Leyen, struck a joyful tone when unveiling the details of the Windsor Framework. Sunak hailed a “new chapter” in UK-EU relations, while Von der Leyen even referred to her counterpart as “dear Rishi”. Their hope is that the deal will end years of stalemate and smooth trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

What is in the deal?

  • A green lane for those sending goods to Northern Ireland from the UK, while those exporting onwards will go through a red lane with full EU customs clearance in Northern Irish ports
  • In a change from the existing Protocol, UK VAT and excise changes will apply in Northern Ireland
  • Drugs approved by the UK regulator will be available in Northern Ireland
  • A new emergency brake for the Northern Ireland Assembly which can be pulled in exceptional circumstances to opt Northern Ireland out of future single market legislation. This will require 30 of the 90 members from at least two parties in the Assembly to vote for this and will then be subject to further discission at an EU-UK level. This has been described as the “Stormont Brake”
  • The EU has said that should the deal be implemented, the UK will be able to re-enter the Horizon science programme
  • The UK Government has abandoned the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, introduced by Boris Johnson to unilaterally scrap it. In turn, the EU has dropped corresponding legal action against the UK

Are people happy?

Sunak gave a confident performance in the House of Commons and he will hope this is the reset his leadership needed. None of the usually loud Eurosceptic voices on the backbenches came out and denounced the deal, though many are unlikely to have had the chance to scrutinise it in full detail. The ominous silence from Boris Johnson, who has just seen his “oven ready Brexit deal” junked in the most public way, will be worth watching. Labour were true to their word in saying that they would support the deal the Government got. On the outside, many have praised the skill of the UK negotiating team for having got the EU to move on some of its crucial red lines.

Is Brexit finally done then?

Not quite. The Democratic Unionist Party are still reading through the document and, having been stung by the devil hiding amidst the detail of previous UK-EU deals, will be going through it with a fine toothcomb. One problem appears to have emerged early on – how the so-called “Stormont Brake” will work. Ian Paisley, the party’s MP for North Antrim, has said that in his view the European Court of Justice will remain the final arbiter and it is therefore not really a veto at all.

It is worth noting however that Paisley is prone to the odd solo run and that his party leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, has been cautious in his response so far. Ultimately, the success of the deal hinges on the DUP feeling confident enough that they can resume power-sharing in Northern Ireland. Elsewhere, there are quibbles starting to emerge about how much bureaucracy has actually been cut back by the Framework, though it is worth noting the major business organisations in Northern Ireland are broadly happy.  Former DUP leader at Westminster Nigel Dodds has also pointed out that the Government appear to have oversold how much the deal will allow Northern Ireland to benefit from UK state aid decisions.

What happens next?

The various parties involved will be given time to chew through the document. While a vote in the House of Commons is not scheduled to take place imminently, the real focus is on events in Belfast. Sunak, who is in Northern Ireland today to sell the deal, will be hoping that he has done enough, though hardliners in unionism will hold the DUP’s feet to the fire in the coming days.

Could this be a turning point for Rishi Sunak?

Sunak will feel pleased that his more constructive approach to negotiating compared with that of previous UK Governments has led somewhere. Mass ministerial resignations have not materialised and for the moment, the ERG are on side. Movement on the Protocol should in theory allow for movement on other shared areas of interest with the EU, such the small boats crisis. If this starts a sequence of policy wins, then he and others around him may feel that the electoral tide may yet shift. However, with the DUP as yet undecided, the tentatively positive mood of today could quickly turn dark.

Andrew has written an opinion piece for The Spectator’s Coffee House considering how unionist politicians will respond in the coming days which can be read here

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