Yay or Nay for the New Brexit Agreement?
March 4, 2023 | Expert Insights
Early this week, a joint statement emanated from London announcing the commencement of talks between the UK and the EU on the long-hanging issue of the Northern Ireland Protocol, indicating that the impasse may finally get resolved. The face-to-face meeting between Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is reported to have covered much ground, raising hopes for the people of Northern Ireland, whose financial well-being and political future is at stake.
As for Prime Minister Sunak, this deal could do much for his shaky standing if it succeeds.
Six years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union's single trade and customs market, the two sides appeared to have reached a tentative agreement to define the trade status of Northern Ireland (NI). NI is UK’s only land border with the EU and has been a sore subject of Brexit negotiations even before the vote took place owing to the complex nature of the Agreement that governs its relationship with Whitehall.
The proposed Framework, titled 'Windsor Framework’ (so called as the meeting took place near the famed Windsor Great Park) would allow for smoother trade between the UK and the EU through the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This would also allow for the EU to preserve the integrity of its single market and the UK to help preserve the special status of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, agreed to vide the Good Friday Agreement of 1998.
The Northern Irish border is more than just a trade issue; it represents the sentiments of nearly 2 million Irish people (including nearly 44 per cent Catholics who have waged a relentless struggle for independence from the UK), earning them the privilege of a free border with its neighbour, Republic of Ireland, (and by association with the EU) after centuries of violence, culminating in the Agreement in the second half of the 20th century. ‘The Troubles' gave way to the Good Friday Agreement, signed and ratified in 1998, that institutionalised cross-border cooperation, especially along the lines of trade and economy.
The Northern Ireland Protocol, a deal agreed upon by then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson, sought to uphold this Agreement by allowing Northern Ireland to remain in the EU single market and operate in the UK market. This meant there would be some border checks and controls on trade across the border – effectively placing Northern Ireland in a buffer zone between the UK and the EU single market.
In 2021, the Protocol came into effect through the withdrawal agreement, drawing immediate outcry from all four sides of the debate – Britain, the EU, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. Pro-Brexiteers in Britain and Northern Ireland feared the EU would have more control over the region despite the UK leaving the bloc. Others feared that this would isolate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and affect the peace agreement between the two countries. Some British companies halted supply to outlets and stores in Northern Ireland after the Protocol came into effect.
The failure of the Protocol also caused the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), one of the main political parties in Northern Ireland, to boycott governmental elections in the country. This caused the power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland to dismantle and stall important decision-making processes in the country. Across the Irish Sea, the British government rapidly cycled through three Prime Ministers in the past two years – indicating the make-or-break nature of any Brexit negotiation.
From Theresa May to Johnson to Truss to Sunak –Brexit has been the Waterloo of British premiers. Rishi Sunak, a shrewd observer, was privy to all its pitfalls as Johnson's righthand man and his Chancellor of the Exchequer; he should be better equipped to deal with this intractable problem. Besieged from all sides since his induction into 10 Downing Street-the cost-of-living crisis, a sinking Pound and record inflation- he now has something to show to his electorates, provided it succeeds.
While it would be premature to pass judgment on the Windsor Framework, initial observations indicate that it may endure, although it is unlikely to fully meet the expectations of all parties concerned.
Some modalities have been worked out. For example, goods intended for trade in Northern Ireland from Britain will go into the “green lane” and will not be subject to checks. Those headed for the EU market will enter the “red lane” and be subject to certain checks as required by the EU single market.
The Northern Ireland Assembly will now be able to halt the implementation of new EU single market rules “if 30 out of the 90 members from at least two parties” in the Assembly do not agree with the laws. Termed 'Stormont brake', this will then be put to the vote in the UK government, which can veto the implementation of these rules.
The ‘Stormont Brake’ (named after the Northern Ireland Assembly) will provide a sense of autonomy to the power-sharing government and possibly soothe the fears of Brexiteers who are wary of any agreement acceding powers and control to the EU or any of its branches of government. However, the European Court of Justice will be the ultimate arbiter of any single market rules, and laws followed in Northern Ireland. This could be a flashpoint in securing support for the Agreement in Northern Ireland, with the DUP not willing to compromise on its relationship with the UK. The Irish Nationalist Party, Sinn Fein, could protest the arrangement on the grounds of the Good Friday Agreement being violated by the reduced openness of the border.
One significant consequence of the Agreement will be that British scientists will regain access to Horizon, a science and innovation programme providing grants and projects to researchers worth 95.5 billion euros ($101 billion). Britain had earlier negotiated access to these programmes at the end of 2020 but was not able to participate because of their government's stance on the Protocol.
Now both the EU and the UK will return to their respective parliaments to secure support and an Agreement on the Framework and hope it breaks a deadlock in Brexit negotiations. Still, there may be efforts to bring amendments considering the involvement of multiple stakeholders- Irish political parties, the UK, the EU, and other lawmakers.
However, the pressure on the economic front and the geopolitical overhang of the Ukraine war has introduced an element of urgency on the part of the Sunak government to close the deal at the earliest. It would be a great photo opportunity all around if the final Agreement could be done in time for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement. This could increase Sunak’s chances for re-election in next year's general elections.
The Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar (whose father Ashok Varadkar was born in Mumbai before he moved to the UK to practise as a doctor) summed it well when he said, "Certainly the deal isn't done yet. But I do think we are inching towards conclusion."
- The Windsor Framework will help ensure no hard border and reduced checks for goods and trade between NI and the Republic of Ireland (the UK market and the EU single market). The EU will also provide an emergency mechanism where the UK, through the ‘Stormont brake’, can veto the implementation of new EU single market laws should it secure a 1/3rd majority vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. On the face of it, it seems the only acceptable solution.
- Any opposition to the Agreement that could derail its implementation is expected to come from British lawmakers who continue to maintain a hard Brexit line of ‘Leave the EU at all costs’ and pro-Unionist Irish leaders who will feel slighted at the proposed introduction of checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland. But this, too, is not unsurmountable, as political sentiments cannot overrule economic prudence.
- If this Agreement secures support and can be implemented over the course of the next year, Sunak will be more confident of an extended term as UK PM and be able to focus on other issues faced by both the UK. The EU will also improve its relations with the UK at a time when Europe is facing troubles in its own neighbourhood.