Ideas on Europe

Going to Windsor

Going to Windsor

Today on "Ideas on Europe" we are going to Windsor. Not to visit the new King, but to talk about whether this spring’s deal on Northern Ireland means a new start for relations between the EU and the UK. To discuss this further, we welcome back the chair of our partners UACES, Simon Usherwood, professor at the Open University.

So, is everything happy again between the British and Brussels?

As much as you might hope that was the case, sadly it’s not quite that simple.

You will remember that ever since the EU agreed the terms of the UK’s withdrawal from the organisation at the very start of 2020, the British have been talking about how unhappy they are with the arrangements, contained in the Northern Ireland Protocol.

In essence, those arrangements keep Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single market, as a way of avoiding having to have border controls between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland. This was something that has been a key part of the settlement of the violence there in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, which has just had its 25th anniversary.

The problem is that not having those so-called North-South controls has meant having controls instead between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK; or East-West checks, as we refer to them.

For London, that was taken as an infringement of British sovereignty and the integrity of the UK, and Boris Johnson, the then Prime Minister, kept on making moves to get out of the Protocol.

Now in the world of international law, not sticking to your treaty obligations is a Bad Thing and so the EU has spent the last three years being deeply concerned about this. Most obviously, it has meant that any other topic of potential cooperation between the two has been made conditional by the Union on resolving this problem.

But Johnson has left Number 10 Downing Street. Are things improving now?

If we ignore the brief period with Liz Truss, the current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak saw an opportunity to cut through this impasse, simultaneously reopening options with the EU and demonstrating his ‘can-do’ approach ahead of the next British general election.

The deal reached in February this year provides for some reductions in East-West checks and the application of EU rules in Northern Ireland, but these details are less important than the politics of the situation.

By signing up to this, and by getting broad support from his party at the same time, Sunak has started to repair the damage done to trust in relations and has, in effect, committed the Conservative party to work to honour its commitments under the Protocol.

So where does Windsor come into all this?

This was part of the cunning second aspect of the deal: getting Northern Ireland’s government up and running again.

The main unionist party, the DUP, has refused to join any government for the past couple of years, because of the Protocol.

Choosing the name of Windsor Framework for the new deal with the EU was a very calculated attempt to dress up the changes in the rhetoric of unionism: it’s hard to think of other places that are quite so invested in the images and symbols of the United Kingdom.

However, that symbolic push hasn’t worked out and we still don’t have a government in operation in Northern Ireland; something that doesn’t look like it’ll change soon.

Has it at least removed some of the tensions between London and Brussels?

It hasn’t been a complete reset, I’m afraid.

On Northern Ireland itself, there are still numerous points of practical implementation that are causing difficulties and where the UK has still to show that it is doing the things it said it would.

In Parliament, we have a couple of pieces of legislation being pushed through that could well break other treaty obligations made by the UK to the EU.

And while we have seen new talks about British participation in various EU activities – like research funding – those haven’t yet produced agreements.

Indeed, the main point we might take from all of this is that while trust is really important as a basic condition for working together, it’s not enough by itself. Things like finances, legal differences and day-to-day party politics also count for a lot too.

So should we be cheerful, or pessimistic right now?

Good question! And one that’s very hard to answer at this stage. Maybe the best we can say is that Windsor has been a positive step, but only one step in a long journey to the British finding a relationship with the EU that everyone is comfortable with.

Many thanks, for sharing your analysis with us. I recall you are professor at the Open University.

Entretien réalisé par Laurence Aubron.