Windsor framework: Sunak’s first major breakthrough
SO, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, who until the start of the last week was struggling to tackle numerous political crises, has been able to snatch a dramatic political point by the Windsor Framework with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Indubitably, it was a great turn around on the part of Rishi Sunak to convince the EU leadership to agree on this framework without doing much bargaining. The last round of talks between the two sides was enveloped with a lot of apprehensions and confusions, but Sunak managed to grab one of the most positive deals for the UK in recent times. Things were not going well for Sunak after taking charge for the premiership four months ago. He was being constantly criticized for his lack of direction and decision making – particularly his former bosses – Liz Truss and Boris Johnson – had been very vicious in their attacks on Sunak.
At the same time, the Labour Party was also consistently showing a big lead in all public opinion polls. His inability to find any amicable solution to the simmering cost-of-living and energy crises was being subjected to the worst kind of media trial by his detractors and he appeared to be spiralling down fast. Just as it seemed that Rishi Sunak was close to reaching an agreement with the EU to resolve the long-standing dispute surrounding the Northern Ireland protocol, he was confronted with the most significant challenge from all sides- outside and inside the Conservative party. The previously existing divisions within the Conservative Party between hard and soft Brexit supporters resurfaced, posing a considerable challenge to Sunak.
He certainly pulled a blinder by hitting the framework in Windsor with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. There was palpable warmth between the two at the signing ceremony, with the EU chief referring to him as “dear Rishi” and eulogizing his efforts for a “new chapter” and “stronger EU-UK relationship”. The move is a very risky venture for Sunak, just four months into the job. British media is overwhelmingly lauding his achievement in getting the EU to soften its stance. The agreement, branded as the Windsor Framework, changes the Northern Ireland Protocol which was signed by Mr. Johnson and came into force in 2021. The major difference is that, unlike the protocol which aimed to ensure movement of goods across the Irish land border by conducting checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain instead, the framework ensures smooth trade flow within the whole United Kingdom and protects Northern Ireland’s place in the union by safeguarding sovereignty for its people. Under the new agreement, many positives are being expected by the signatories.
A new system will be implemented where goods originating from Britain and destined for Northern Ireland will be transported through a designated “green lane.” For goods that may potentially move on to the EU, a separate “red lane” will be established. Goods that are transported through the designated “green lane” into Northern Ireland will undergo significantly reduced checks and paperwork. However, for goods that pass through the “red lane,” standard checks will still apply. The Northern Ireland Assembly will have the ability to object to EU rules that are deemed to be “significantly different” and would apply in Northern Ireland, utilizing a mechanism known as the “Stormont brake.” For alcoholic drinks that are intended for immediate consumption and immovable goods such as heat pumps, Northern Ireland will now adhere to UK VAT and excise rules. In the past, Northern Ireland could have been subjected to EU VAT regulations. Northern Ireland will have full access to medicines that have been approved in the UK. Additionally, the agreement will impose some limitations on the European Court of Justice’s oversight of the protocol, although it will not completely eliminate it.
The new agreement on post-Brexit trading rules has “removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”, Rishi Sunak claimed proudly. He is right in saying so. But he is facing some imminent challenges with regard to the Windsor Framework. The proposed deal is expected to encounter opposition from Brexiteers, including Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson, as well as from lawmakers who represent the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the most prominent pro-UK party in Northern Ireland, has staunchly opposed the protocol, contending that it undermines the province’s position within the UK. The DUP is particularly infuriated by the possibility of EU law continuing to play a role in Northern Ireland and their response could impact how Conservative eurosceptics in London react. Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader who has refused to re-enter a power-sharing government in Belfast headed by nationalists who support Northern Ireland’s inclusion in the Republic of Ireland, tweeted that the party will “take our time to examine the details.” Rishi Sunak, just after signing the agreement, dashed to Belfast, to secure support for the new Brexit deal. Sunak is attempting to gain support from all sides in Northern Ireland to reset relationships with the EU and the United States, without upsetting lawmakers in his party and in Belfast who are strongly in favour of Brexit.
US President Joe Biden has also lauded the deal as “an essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is preserved and strengthened”. Sunak’s detractors are pointing towards his past track-record as a fierce Pro-Brexit. Ironically, Rishi Sunak energetically campaigned to extricate the UK from the EU and the single market. He firmly believed that Brexit would not be complete until the UK abandoned the single market. But now after signing this deal, which indirectly brings back the single market, Sunak is vigorously campaigning for his new deal. In 2019, he participated in the general election campaign under Boris Johnson’s leadership on the platform that the NI protocol was the Brexit miracle cure. Now he has shifted his stance after becoming the prime minister. This is certainly a pragmatic approach. But his opponents are likely to grind him on this blatant “U-turn” in the coming days when he will be canvassing for parliamentary approval for the Windsor Framework.