Brexit: The grown-ups are back in charge

By Christopher Phillips, Al-Majalla 3 March 2023

Rishi Sunak’s new agreement with the European Union on Northern Ireland has been a long time coming. The status of the province was one of the most contested issues in Britain’s divorce from Brussels, helping to topple Theresa May’s government and contributing to how long and acrimonious the process was.

The eventual compromise, the ‘Northern Ireland protocol’ agreed by May’s successor Boris Johnson, proved no long-term solution, as northern Irish unionists, members of Johnson’s Conservative Party and, remarkably, Johnson himself, later railed against what was agreed. Johnson even proposed legislation to unilaterally end the protocol, which would have broken international laws London had agreed to with Brussels.

Against this backdrop, the ‘Windsor Framework’ agreed by Sunak with European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in late February is a refreshing climbdown and display of political maturity from Britain’s new Prime Minister.

After several years of nationalist fantasies from Johnson and other Brexit extremists, this deal suggests the adults are back in charge of Britain’s relationship with the EU.

Brexit and Northern Ireland

Britons narrowly voted to leave the EU in a 2016 referendum, a result that few expected and had prepared for. The Prime Minister who called the vote, David Cameron, immediately resigned, leaving his Home Secretary Theresa May to take on the role and the difficult task of delivering ‘Brexit’.

The referendum had only asked the British public whether they wished to remain in the EU, not what London’s relationship with Brussels would be like should it leave the bloc. May interpreted the result as a desire to leave not only the EU, but also its free market and customs union, a ‘hard Brexit’ that would end freedom of movement of goods and people into the UK and allow Britain to diverge standards.

In doing so, she dismissed those arguing for a ‘soft Brexit’ that would have seen Britain remain in the free market and/or customs union, maintaining European trading standards and frictionless trade with its biggest commercial partner, but with no say on EU rules and no control over immigration from the bloc.

Northern Ireland proved a major obstacle to this Hard Brexit vision. Peace between Republicans and Unionists in the once-troubled province had been greatly aided by the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. Dublin, Brussels, Washington and republicans in Belfast all insisted that Brexit couldn’t risk this.

How then could the UK leave the EU and its common market, erecting borders and customs checks, while keeping a soft border between the two parts of Ireland?

May proposed what became known as ‘the backstop’: that Northern Ireland would effectively remain in the EU’s customs union and single market until a solution could be found that allowed it to leave without creating a hard border with the republic.

But this effectively created a customs border in the Irish Sea, outraging Northern Irish unionists and Conservative hardliners, who saw it as severing the region from the rest of the UK.

This helped derail May’s proposed agreement with the EU and contributed to a plot by pro-Brexit Conservatives, particularly the powerful European Research Group (ERG) to topple May in 2019.

Boris Johnson, who was elected as May’s successor, had promised Northern Irish Unionists and businesses that he would not allow a customs border in the Irish Sea, but effectively renegued on this when he eventually agreed a divorce deal with the EU. Unlike May, Johnson had a large parliamentary majority, won soon after succeeding his predecessor, meaning he found it easier to get his agreement with the EU approved into law.

But despite suggesting on the campaign trail that he had ‘an oven ready Brexit’ deal that might somehow solve the problems, especially on Northern Ireland, in fact he ended up negotiating something very similar to that agreed by May.

The major difference was the ‘Northern Ireland protocol,’ which agreed to permanently align Northern Ireland with the customs union and single market, not just temporarily as under May.

It meant customs checks for all goods entering Northern Ireland’s ports, whether staying in the province or moving on to the Republic, causing significant delays and paperwork, and prompting several British companies to cease shipping due to excessive costs.

A broken promise

Johnson’s deal broke his promise to Unionists about a customs border in the Irish Sea and to businesses about trade being frictionless. Such broken promises were unsurprising, given Johnson’s past conduct. He had been the most high-profile member of the ‘Leave’ campaign in the 2016 referendum, making bold claims about the prosperous future that awaited Britain if it left the EU.

The campaigners promised that £350m a week could be diverted from the EU to the NHS; that trade would be uninterrupted by departure from the bloc; and that Britain would be wealthier as a consequence.

None of this turned out to be true. The NHS was not given extra funds and became weaker after Brexit when it could no longer easily recruit vital European staff. Trade between the UK and EU fell by about a fifth, with new customs paperwork (like that in Northern Ireland) impacting profitability.

Meanwhile, far from thriving, Britain’s post-Brexit economy has struggled, being the lowest performer in the G7 and not experiencing the post-Covid recoveries seen elsewhere.

Denial and boosterim

Yet as Prime Minister Johnson, like many of his hardline pro-Brexit MPs, denied that his deal was responsible for the problems. At times, this meant boosterism, talking up ‘Global Britain’ and highlighting the many supposed benefits Brexit had brought. New trade deals were greeted with triumphs by ministers, even though the vast majority simply replicated relationships that Britain had previously enjoyed as part of the EU and brought no new benefits.

Such was the lack of obvious advantages that Johnson had to create a Ministry of Brexit Benefits and the minister, Jacob Rees-Mogg, resorted to taking an advert out in a newspaper asking readers to send suggestions of EU regulations they wanted scrapped.

More often though, the hardliners fell back on Brussels-bashing, their favoured predilection throughout the referendum campaign, the Brexit negotiations and for decades before. Incredibly, Johnson blamed the EU for the difficulties caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, despite having introduced it himself and insisting it was, “a good arrangement…with minimum possible bureaucratic consequences,” when he signed it.

The betrayed unionist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) expressed their anger by engineering the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing assembly, while hardline Conservative Brexiteers insisted Johnson renegotiate aggressively with the EU. This he did, introducing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which threatened to unilaterally override much of the agreement with Brussels, to overcome, “unacceptable barriers to trade.”

Despite being warned that this would break international law, damage Britain’s global reputation and risk a trade war with the EU in response, Johnson and his short-lived successor Liz Truss, pushed the bill through, insisting this would force Brussels to compromise.

‘Quite a departure’

Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework is, therefore, quite a departure in both content and style. In terms of the agreement, Brussels and London will significantly reduce the customs checks. These include ‘green’ lanes without customs for goods remaining in Northern Ireland and ‘red’ lanes with checks for those going on to the Republic and the EU.

Importantly, it also includes a ‘break’ that allows the Northern Irish Assembly at Stormont to vote against the introduction of any new EU laws it disapproves of, in an effort to appease the Unionists. This has yet to be approved by either the British Parliament or Northern Ireland’s politicians but, assuming it passes, would be a victory for level-headed compromise.

As Irish Journalist Fintan O’Toole has noted, this solution could have been adopted two years ago, but Johnson, the ERG and some Unionists were blinded by their pro-Brexit zeal. In contrast Sunak has seemingly embraced realism to find a workable solution.

Muted praise

Sunak deserves credit for this achievement. He has had to face down some hardline Brexiters in his Conservative party, including Johnson who, retains some support and has said he may not vote for the deal in parliament. Sunak has also risked the ire of Northern Ireland’s Unionists, both the DUP and even more right-wing parties, which could yet trouble him. He has also dared to break the grip that hardliners have had on the Conservative party since Brexit and steer closer to the centre of UK politics.

An indicator of this has been his abandonment of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill days after agreeing the Windsor Framework.

However, praise should be muted.

Firstly, Sunak is no outsider. He is a Brexiter himself and was Johnson’s chancellor, approving and endorsing all his premier’s policies and approaches, including the EU divorce deal and the Northern Ireland protocol. In essence, Sunak is fixing a problem partly of his own making.

Secondly, the Prime Minister is driven by necessity not altruism. His party is 20 points behind in opinion polls and he has a personal approval writing of -26. Most Britons believe victory for the opposition Labour party in the next election is inevitable, so Sunak has to roll the dice in a desperate attempt to shift the dial.

Hardline Brexit and hostility to Brussels are no longer the vote winners they were for Johnson, and he needs to change tack.

Related to this, most voters’ focus is on the economy, which is struggling badly. The Windsor Framework opens the door to better trade for Northern Ireland, greater investment in the province as already indicated by the Biden administration, and closer ties to the EU that might eventually lead to improved commercial links.

This will probably not work, and it could well be Labour leader Keir Starmer who, as the next prime minister, reaps the economic and diplomatic benefits of improved EU ties. But Sunak is a canny operator and will know that if he improves the Conservatives calamitous current position and at least runs Starmer close at the next election it will improve his chances of remaining party leader.

While London may be weaning itself off unrealistic fantasies, that may not yet be true of Belfast’s Unionists. The DUP and other hardliners could yet oppose the changes and refuse to re-enter Stormont, leaving Northern Irish politics in a state of paralysis. Yet they too would benefit from a reality check.

As has been widely reported, demographics and attitudes in Northern Ireland are changing. For the first time since Ireland’s partition, Catholics now outnumber Protestants in the province, while commitment to unionism is waning, especially among the young.

A recent poll showed the majority of Northern Ireland’s population expect unification with the Republic within a decade. Ironically for the DUP, who supported Brexit, the UK’s departure from the EU has played a major role in this. While Britain was part of the EU, formal unification with the rest of Ireland seemed less pressing given the seamless interaction that the single market afforded.

The Brexit process has brought this to an end and, even with the new framework, it is unsurprising that more people are contemplating joining the Republic and with it, returning to the EU.

Such a departure, of course, is the choice of the people of Northern Ireland but, were it to happen, would not reflect well on Brexit. Despite the promises of sunlit uplands, the reality of departing the EU has been tough.

The Windsor Framework goes some way to mitigate some of the harsher effects but will not compensate for the economic and diplomatic losses of the last few years.

Perhaps more significant than the detail of the new framework is the change in approach from London and the improved relationship with the EU it might bring. Now that the adults are, seemingly, back in charge in London, the UK might have more luck at making Brexit work or, at, least, making it work better than it has so far.


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