This one will have to survive scrutiny of the text and no doubt some noisy objections. But there is every reason to expect it will: It removes a range of frictions and red tape that were regular complaints of the Northern Ireland Protocol Johnson negotiated and then sought to override. What has changed since 2018 or 2019 isn’t so much the specific solutions, but the world in which the two sides debate the details of customs bar codes and sausage imports.
Assuming the agreement holds, Sunak can take substantial credit not just for returning a measure of financial stability in the wake of Liz Truss’s budget fiasco last year, but for providing a more lasting settlement in the thorniest of Brexit issues. And in doing so, he will have restored a measure of diplomatic credibility to the UK’s battered reputation.
The broad parameters of the new Windsor Framework have been floating around for some time, but the details went significantly beyond what was trailed. It establishes green and red lanes to separate goods destined to remain in Northern Ireland (for which all customs bureaucracy will be scrapped) and those at risk of going to the Republic and therefore the EU’s single market. From the movement of pets to parcels to plants and steel, red tape, quotas and rules have been scrapped and movement freed. The deal also corrects the anomaly of some goods and medicines that Britons could access being unavailable or hard to get in Northern Ireland. Where Johnson’s detail ultimately betrayed Northern Ireland unionists, Sunak’s offers them something more concrete than an olive branch.
The EU has agreed to a “Stormont brake” — named for the legislature in Belfast — to prevent the introduction of new EU rules that would have a substantial impact on Northern Ireland. This aims to address concerns, particularly among unionists, that the Northern Ireland Protocol posed a democratic deficit since Northern Ireland had to follow EU single market rules and regulations without getting any say in them. The UK also won some powers over VAT rates in Northern Ireland, which remained part of the EU’s single market after Brexit and so was subject to EU rules for VAT. How all of these things will work in detail will become clearer as lawmakers pick through the text.
Make no mistake: These are significant shifts in what were once immovable EU positions. Back in March 2018, then Prime Minister Theresa May had proposed what was effectively the green-red lane distinction. The idea got the Gallic brush-off from Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. “These proposals run the risk of unraveling our customs code in order to introduce new exceptions. They also bring with them a major fraud risk,” Barnier recalled in his recently published diaries. (May stood up in Parliament Monday night to support the new framework, saying “it will make a huge difference.”)
Nearly a year later, and desperate for a deal he could sell as a success before elections in December, Boris Johnson accepted controls between Britain and Northern Ireland. His Brexit negotiator, David Frost, surprised EU negotiators by returning with a posse of tax experts on Oct. 16, after the negotiations had concluded, to try to get a rewrite of the VAT chapter. Barnier wasn’t having it. “On the pretext of being able to assure the UK that control of tax services remains in British hands, what they actually want is to give Northern Ireland a major tax advantage within the single market itself,” Barnier wrote. “Not a chance.”
What made it possible for Sunak? Surely, some of his own personal qualities, very different from the confrontational approach of Johnson or Truss. While many of these solutions were always there, the recent completion of a real-time database (which the UK always argued would make an invisible border possible but struggled to make happen) helped operationalize them. It was also clear that the status quo couldn’t hold. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill sent the UK down the road to a trade war. The issue threatened relations with Washington as the 25-year anniversary of the Belfast Agreement approaches.
The EU, too, realized, that the Protocol had imposed an unfair burden that drove a wedge between constituents parts of the UK and risked undermining the Good Friday Agreement that was underwritten by Europe. Those details may have been the logical consequences of the Brexit decision, but sometimes you can win an argument and lose a friend.
There will be some who argue that the metaphoric loaded gun of Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill — which threatened to unilaterally breach the treaty with the EU — pushed the EU to negotiate. It’s hard to prove a counterfactual, but that stretches credulity. More likely, it was real guns and tanks in Ukraine rather than Johnson’s legislative bludgeon that made the difference. As Sunak and European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen repeatedly alluded in their press conference, geopolitics has returned.
Keir Starmer threw his support behind the new arrangement in Parliament Monday. All eyes, of course, will be on the reaction of hardline Brexiters in Johnson’s own party — including one Boris Johnson — and the DUP in Northern Ireland. Neither have the power they once did, especially with publics in both Britain and Northern Ireland keen to see working government and better EU relations.
It would be a disappointment for Sunak if the DUP refused to rejoin the suspended Northern Ireland assembly, but that wouldn’t necessarily doom his deal. The fact that Von der Leyen went on to meet with King Charles (which happens at the advice of the UK government), suggests not only that Sunak is confident about his ability to make the agreement stick, but that he’s determined to control the narrative and cast the UK-EU relationship as a partnership that has moved beyond Brexit.
The impact of the deal on the broader UK economy will be limited. Trade with Northern Ireland is a tiny proportion of the UK economy. And the Northern Ireland economy has done very well out of Brexit, unlike the rest of the country, since it uniquely remained part of the EU’s single market for goods. Many of the UK’s bigger problems are unrelated to Brexit but amplified by the end to labor market mobility, something beyond the scope of these negotiations or any that are envisaged.
But even a big leap from a low base is an advance. Von der Leyen made clear that EU obstacles to Britain’s involvement in the EU’s massive Horizon science funding program would be removed. That will be welcome in universities and laboratories that have faced uncertainty and seen funding cut off because of the impasse over Northern Ireland. This was as close to a kumbaya moment as the UK and EU have had for many years; maybe decades. It should mark the end of the beginning of the post-Brexit era; maybe not the ending many wanted, but one that most will be happy to live with.
More From Bloomberg Opinion:
• Can Rishi Sunak Stand Up to the Last Brexit Holdouts?: Therese Raphael
Northern Ireland and Scotland Are on a Long Road Out of the UK: Max Hastings
The UK’s Political Fever Dreams May Finally Be Over: Martin Ivens
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion covering health care and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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