Seeking a middle ground in post-Brexit UK-EU relations: Windsor Framework Agreement
In recent weeks, when Turkey’s agenda was focused on humanitarian relief efforts after the earthquake on the one hand and the political earthquake that shook the opposition bloc on the other, an important development took place between the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU). As a result of an intensive negotiation process, the parties announced that they agreed to revise the Northern Ireland Protocol, which caused problems in post-Brexit relations. The Windsor Framework Agreement, as the new Windsor Framework Agreement is now known, is a critical compromise step that – if it receives sufficient support in domestic politics – will secure peace and stability in Northern Ireland and pave the way for the UK to conduct its relations with both the EU and the US on a more moderate level.
The Northern Ireland Protocol and the controversial customs border issue
The Northern Ireland Protocol regulates trade relations between Northern Ireland as part of the post-Brexit United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland as a member of the EU. In order not to contradict the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, the parties agreed that Northern Ireland would be subject to EU customs rules when the UK leaves the EU. Thus, a physical border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland was avoided.
However, Brexit made it necessary for a customs border to be established at some point. The rhetoric of then Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who negotiated the trade deal, was not enough to hide this fact. In the end, the parties agreed that customs checks would be carried out over the Irish Sea. However, as the disadvantageous conditions caused by the decision to leave the customs union started to make themselves felt on the ground, the Johnson government, citing Article 16 of the Additional Protocol to the Brexit Agreement, demanded that the protocol be revised to exclude inspections on UK exports to Northern Ireland. In June last year, a bill was even submitted to the House of Commons for the UK to unilaterally withdraw from the protocol.
This unilateral withdrawal, which casts a shadow over the UK’s credibility in the international arena, has led to strained relations with the EU and a decline in co-operation in many areas. The discomfort caused by the Protocol also locked the politics of Northern Ireland. Following Sinn Feinn’s victory in the elections held in May 2022, the pro-union Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) boycotted the election result, citing the Northern Ireland Protocol, and the government could not be formed. In the face of the political instability that affected Northern Ireland, the concern of the Irish-origin US President Joe Biden for the future of peace had a negative impact on the relations between the US and the UK.
Sunak effect on the deal:
The election of former Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak as prime minister last October, following a stormy leadership election process within the Conservative Party, created a window of opportunity to resolve the current problems in relations with the EU. Compared to his predecessors Boris Johnson and Liz Truss, Sunak’s prudent and conciliatory stance was welcomed by Brussels and supported by Washington, which favours close cooperation among its allies. Contacts between leaders at high-level meetings allowed for the repair of eroded trust.
In this context, it is fair to say that the foundations of the Windsor Agreement were laid during the Sunak-Biden meeting at the G-20 Leaders’ Summit in Bali in November last year. Mr Sunak pledged to resolve the issues concerning the Northern Ireland Protocol, which had a negative impact on relations with the EU and jeopardised the future of the Good Friday Agreement, by the 25th anniversary of the agreement (next April). The fact that the free trade agreement, for which the UK has been waiting for a green light from Washington for quite some time, was included in the lines of the Biden-Sunak meeting suggests that the issue is linked to the resolution of the Northern Ireland Protocol issue.
What does the Windsor Agreement promise?
Compared to its predecessor, the Windsor Agreement offers an interim solution that will ensure the smooth flow of trade on the one hand, and on the other hand, it will partially allay sensitivities on issues such as sovereignty and the integrity of the union. Accordingly, it is planned to create a green lane for goods to be exported from the UK to Northern Ireland and a red lane for goods to be transported to the EU.
Goods travelling from the UK to Northern Ireland and staying there would not be subject to customs duties. In this way, trade, which has been slowed down by the preparation of documents and customs procedures, will accelerate again. The sale of delicatessen products (the famous sausage wars) and cheeses, which were banned under the old protocol, will be authorised. Cargo between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland will also be exempt from customs. UK-approved medicines – even if not approved by the European Medicines Agency – will be available for sale in Northern Ireland. The document requirement, which makes it difficult for pets to travel, will also be eliminated.
The old protocol’s reference to the European Court of Justice for the settlement of trade disputes offended those who were sensitive to sovereignty rights. The new agreement envisages the establishment of an arbitral tribunal with judges representing Northern Ireland, the UK and the EU. The protocol also gives the Northern Irish parliament, Stormont, the right to veto EU regulations. Given the 1998 Good Friday Agreement’s division of political authority between nationalists and pro-unionists in Northern Ireland, the new protocol leaves the door open for the UK to indirectly regulate its trade relations with the EU.
What are the reactions to the agreement?
Although the agreement is not recognised as an international treaty, BB Sunak intends to put the decision to a parliamentary vote. In this case, the position of his MPs, the opposition and of course the DUP will be decisive.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer, who seems to be ahead of Sunak in the polls, is positive about the Windsor Agreement for now in terms of reducing tensions between the UK and the EU. The situation within the Conservative Party is a bit complicated. There are concerns that Johnson, who is looking for an opportunity to take back the Prime Minister’s seat, will favour the Brexiteers within the party. Stating that it is not possible for him to vote in favour of the deal if it is submitted to the Parliament for approval, Johnson also acknowledges that the public opinion is in favour of ending the conflict between the UK and the EU. The European Research Group (ERG), which represents the dark pro-Brexit vein within the Conservative Party, announced that they will act according to the decision of the DUP, the pro-union party of Northern Ireland. Although it will ease customs control in trade with Northern Ireland, it cannot be said that the agreement does not fully meet the expectations of the DUP in terms of the existence of a physical customs border and the EU’s partial preservation of its legal authority. However, after analysing the small print in the agreement, it is possible that those who want to see the bigger picture will weigh in and common sense will prevail.
The support for this protocol will be a diplomatic success for BB Sunak, who is struggling to manage the cost of living crisis. A détente process that encourages constructive dialogue between the UK and the EU will allow a revival of cooperation not only in trade but also in many other areas, from preventing illegal immigration to sharing R&D in science and technology. The EU’s announcement immediately after the signing of the Windsor Agreement that it would reactivate the UK’s membership of the Horizon 2020 scientific research programme is a goodwill gesture in this respect.
The softening of relations between London and Brussels is also a welcome development for Washington, which is trying to avoid a potential rift among its allies as the war in Ukraine continues. While the repercussions of the deal continue, US senators’ statements in Congress that it is time to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK may be interpreted as a sign that concrete steps can be taken during President Biden’s planned visit to the UK in April.
It is actually quite tragic that the diplomatic effort to minimise the damage caused by the Brexit decision is being presented as a success story. The gap between the promises of the Brexiteers and the reality on the ground is widening every day. The fact that Mr Sunak will meet with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysée Palace to discuss controlling illegal migration is proof of how decisive it is for the UK’s interests to keep its relations with the EU close and warm.