NEWS · 28 February 2023

With much fanfare the government has announced the ‘Windsor Framework’, a deal over the Northern Ireland Protocol that is one of Brexit’s longest-running sticking points.

So what will it change? In truth, nothing much beyond a few sausages.

Hard Brexit, the form the Tory government chose, inherently means that there must be a border between the UK and the EU. It threatens peace in Northern Ireland to have the border running through Ireland, so it was placed in effect in the Irish Sea. That remains the case (despite Sunak’s claim otherwise), with a few concessions about a ‘green lane’ for goods such as sausages marked for sale in Northern Ireland only.

Northern Ireland was in the EU single market before the deal and it will continue to be afterwards. Politicians are praising the benefits of Northern Ireland’s “best of both worlds” access to the UK and EU markets – which is, of course, exactly what all of us used to have before Brexit.

We give the government no credit for beginning to clean up a small part of the Brexit mess when it was them who chose to make the whole mess to begin with.

Get Brexit re-done?

The Tory right are (mostly) backing the deal, but of course we have heard that one before. There is no guarantee that they won’t later decide again that this was a terrible deal and needs to be re-done, again.

The EU has generously (and with more patience than is deserved, really) tried to placate all sides and give the appearance of concessions while, rightly, sticking to the original deal that they had the foresight to agree up-front when Brexit began.

The UK side has also agreed to scrap its absurd bill on the issue, which would have broken international law by unilaterally scrapping the protocol. This means that the likelihood of a ‘trade war’ has reduced. It’s about time.

Brexiters tied in knots

While some Brexiters support the deal, others are up in arms – but their responses make little sense. They say that there should be no role for EU law in Northern Ireland, but this deal does not affect that: EU law applied before and still applies after. They voted for this years ago.

In reality, EU law is the whole basis of the protocol and the whole point: to keep Northern Ireland in the single market to ensure there is no border across Ireland. A Northern Ireland Protocol without EU law would be like a banana split with no banana.

Excuses, excuses

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), meanwhile, now faces a dilemma. Up until now they have been echoing the impossible ‘no EU law’ points. Power-sharing in Northern Ireland, part of the peace process, means that their government must contain representatives from the nationalist and unionist communities.

The DUP have been blocking the Northern Ireland executive at Stormont from functioning, supposedly in protest at the Northern Ireland Protocol – though oddly enough this level of concern over the protocol only began at the very moment that they lost their status as Northern Ireland’s largest party to Sinn Féin in the 2022 assembly elections.

The ‘Windsor Framework’ includes a mechanism called the ‘Stormont brake’, which gives the Northern Ireland assembly a power to object to (though not veto) new EU rules – but only if it can agree to function, and meet an unlikely voting threshold. It looks like the DUP, who backed Brexit only to see it backfire on them spectacularly, have been outplayed again. They say they are “studying the detail” – but how will they respond?

Over the Horizon

One bright spot in all of this is that the EU has confirmed the agreement clears the way for talks about UK participation in Horizon, the EU science programme. You may remember that this is a vital programme where the government’s aggressive stance towards the EU was losing British scientists millions in funding. Its inclusion here is a win for everyone who has campaigned on the importance of this.

We can also expect to see some wider thawing of UK-EU relations. Nothing close to what we need – and we still won’t be getting any tomatoes any time soon – but at least for now, the government has taken a small step back towards some sort of basic collaboration, or at least non-aggression, with the EU.

Northern Ireland’s Brexit problems, which were entirely created by Tory decisions, aren’t particularly more ‘solved’ than they already had been by the EU’s initial deal. And when it comes to the real problem, Brexit itself, there is a lot further to go.

Brexit hasn’t been ‘fixed’, and can’t be fixed – it still needs to be reversed.