Rishi Sunak has managed to do what a lot of people said he couldn’t and what a lot of others – many of them on his own benches – hoped he could never do. He has managed to forge an agreement with the EU over trade arrangements on the island of Ireland. He met Ursula von der Leyen in Berkshire to rubber-stamp the deal.
The terms, on the face of it, look like his first significant achievement in office. The “Windsor Framework”, Sunak explained in a joint press conference with von der Leyen, will be voted on in parliament, and breaks down into three points.
First, it guarantees a smoother flow of trade within the UK. As predicted, there will be a new green lane for goods going from the UK to Northern Ireland, but also a red lane for goods that might go into the EU. That means that the food available in Britain will also be available in Northern Ireland, a promise which shows quite how badly things have gone thus far. For most goods there will be no customs paperwork, said the PM, and no sense of a border in the Irish sea.
Secondly, said Sunak, the new deal has “amended the legal text of the protocol”, to keep NI in the scope of UK rule-making. And third, he said, the deal “safeguards sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland”. He claims that the only EU law that will persist in Northern Ireland is the “minimum” required to allow trade across the border. The deal also introduces a new “Stormont Brake” which can “pull an emergency brake to changes to EU goods laws,” while the full text shows that the government is now going to drop the NI Protocol Bill.
Sunak concluded by saying the deal is what’s best for “this family of nations – this United Kingdom.”
It’s a shame that Sunak, the Conservative Party and Britain’s many enthusiastic Europhobes never grasped that Brexit would lead to the terrible situation in which such a deal would be necessary. But then there was a lot they didn’t foresee. Some Conservatives, including Bernard Jenkin, never thought a hard border would be a problem at all.
On Sunday, the Conservative MP Mark François, who leads the European Research Group, told Sky News: “If they’ve got a deal they’re proud of, show us the text. Let us run it by our lawyers. Let us fully understand what it means. Then at that point, we might be ready to vote on it.”
To his credit, Sunak has ignored this nonsense and also to his credit, he now has a deal. He also ignored Boris Johnson, the disgraced former Telegraph columnist, who this weekend sharply reduced his future earnings capacity after being quoted saying very disobliging things about the Americans. Johnson saw the problem of the Irish border as the tool with which he could lever himself back into power. Happily, it seems, Sunak has been able to fend off Johnson’s advances – so far.
So what exactly has Sunak done, in brute political terms? The political geometry is pretty stark. He has frozen out the DUP and his own lunatic fringe in order to get a deal with the EU that allows unhindered trade across the Irish border. That is a success.
The problem for them is that the deal still leaves Northern Ireland subject to a small degree of oversight from the EU. Von der Leyen made clear that the EU will have the final say over matters of EU trade, stating clearly: “The ECJ will have final say on single market issues.” That is something that the DUP in particular has made clear that it will never accept.