The Windsor Framework: A view from the UK and Brussels

The Windsor Framework: A view from the UK and Brussels

Yesterday’s Windsor Framework has returned Brexit to the front of UK politics and potentially introduced a renewed relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom. 

Below, Daisy Robertson, Jordan Mullan and Gregor Smith of Portland’s London and Brussels offices provide a view from the UK and Brussels on the renewed prospect of better EU/UK relations and the political hurdles the Prime Minister will face to get his deal over the line to make this a reality.

View from the UK

Rishi Sunak will be breathing a sigh of relief today as his “Windsor Framework” appears to have so far largely escaped criticism – something many thought was unachievable. 

On face value, Sunak has gone some way to meet all of the DUP’s seven tests, which they have said is required to get Stormont back up and running. The DUP is refusing to say whether they will support the deal until they have had the chance to delve into the details, and some members, as well as some Brexiteers, are currently wondering why the EU has seemingly conceded so much. In particular, the Stormont Brake is a big win, giving the UK Government an effective veto over EU policies and rules.

The DUP and the European Research Group (ERG) are poring over the legal details of the text, and in particular will be looking at intricacies to the Stormont Brake, and how it will work in practice. They will be worried by the language from the EU around the Brake only being able to be triggered in the “most exceptional circumstances”.

In addition, the application of EU law in Northern Ireland, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, will also be a key discussion point for Brexiteers over the coming days. The ERG’s ‘Star Chamber’ are due to meet today to fine comb through the text and come to a position. 

The deal has been welcomed by business leaders and organisations across the UK. Including the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB) who praised the efforts of both the UK Government and the EU for delivering the deal. 

In Northern Ireland, it has been more than a year since the DUP collapsed the Assembly and Executive in opposition to the NI Protocol, but it remains to be seen if this renegotiated deal will be enough to convince the party to re-establish power sharing in the region in the coming weeks. 

The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, has acknowledged that significant progress has been made. However, after taking such a robust position on this issue, which has cut through with the Unionist electorate, the fact that the Protocol fundamentally remains will present a difficult decision.

Despite this, Donaldson could well seize the opportunity to sell this deal by arguing that the DUP’s hard-line approach has won significant concessions from the EU.

So much attention has been placed on the DUP throughout the Brexit process that some could be forgiven for thinking that they are the only political voice in Northern Ireland. Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party and the SDLP, who backed the Protocol, and make up a political majority in the NI Assembly have welcomed the progress and signalled their support. This has led to further calls for a return to the Assembly and Executive. 

The DUP departed Stormont last February when they held the First Minister position. If and when they return, all will be changed. 

The leading Nationalist party, Sinn Féin under the leadership of Michelle O’Neill, will for the first time assume the position of First Minister. This will undoubtedly be another bitter pill for Unionism to swallow. 

View from Brussels

You could have forgiven the European Union for thinking they were stuck in Groundhog Day when another UK Prime Minister set out to “fix the Northern Ireland Protocol”.

This time round, however, the mood in Brussels feels different. Spurred by positive collaboration on issues such as support for Ukraine and Russian sanctions, Rishi Sunak has managed to reset relations, impressing EU officials with outcomes rather than rhetoric. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said as much, praising the joint honesty with her interlocutor and commitment to the Northern Irish people. 

To outsiders, EU concessions have come as a surprise. Attempts to work around the EU’s cherished single market always carry political risk, and are often swiftly rejected – particularly these days – in the name of protecting European sovereignty. 

The so-called Stormont Brake is a notable concession. Previously unattainable due to a perceived lack of good faith between parties, the mechanism allows the UK Government to halt the application of new EU laws on goods in Northern Ireland. However, this will apply only if those laws have “significant impact” on Northern Ireland businesses and citizens, with several checks in place prior to activating this “brake”.

But good compromises require flexibility from both sides. While the UK hails the deal as a victory over a “democratic deficit”, the EU views their compromise as a last resort emergency tool required to preserve EU-UK relations.

With this breakthrough we got a glimpse of what the EU might be willing to negotiate. President von der Leyen expressed intent to begin the process for the UK to re-join Horizon Europe, the EU’s scientific funding programme for research and innovation. The UK will hope this momentum can extend to a deal for financial services (something highly valued by the sector on both sides) as well as improved relations to address challenges, such as working with France on Channel crossings.

Ever focussed on reaching a deal and closing this chapter, the EU will happily allow Sunak to claim this victory, their approach to communications suggests as much, but the jeopardy of failing to see the deal through largely sits with the UK. 

The EU and its member states will sit back and wish Sunak well from the side-lines. If he fails, it is back to square one – potentially leaving the bloc to hold out for a future Labour Government and a more favourable political climate in the UK.

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