United Kingdom Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen have announced a new deal to repair post-Brexit difficulties in Northern Ireland, also paving the way for better modalities for cooperation between London and Brussels. The new deal, labelled the “Windsor framework”, seeks to address the disruptions to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was agreed as part of Brexit. Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland would remain a part of the EU’s single market for goods and operate under EU customs rules, which would be implemented by creating a customs border between Northern Ireland and the U.K. Even while the Protocol was being hammered out in 2019, this raised concerns among some Unionists, including members of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who have since protested this arrangement by refusing to participate in the political institutions of the ‘Good Friday Agreement’, which brought peace to Ireland following decades of violence. Under the new deal, free trade will be preserved by setting up green and red lanes. In theory this would lead to better availability of British goods in Northern Ireland markets, including medicines and some foods.
This arrangement, Mr. Sunak said, would protect Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and restore its people’s sovereignty. However, the Windsor framework is far from established as a working arrangement. Mr. Sunak is likely to face a backlash from some hard-line Brexiteers within his party, for what some see as the continuing wide applicability of EU customs rules in Northern Ireland. Of concern is the ‘Stormont brake’, an emergency measure that would allow Northern Ireland’s devolved government to expediently halt any new EU laws from being imposed on the province — a measure that nonetheless the government in Westminster retains the right to veto. Which way the scale tips within Northern Ireland — in terms of its pro- or anti-EU customs rules — will come down to the balance of power between Unionists and Republicans in the province. Nevertheless, as a pragmatic compromise with the EU, this post-Brexit agreement perhaps has gone the farthest of any such plan by the U.K. Conservatives to arrive at a formula that could work on the ground while upholding London’s obligations under the withdrawal agreement. Even more than the specifics of how potential wrinkles on the Irish front are ironed out, the close cooperation that led to the Windsor framework will be heralded as the start of a positive phase in the otherwise wary mood that has pervaded the U.K.-EU relationship in recent years.