The Windsor Framework Redux…

In Pleas for greater speed and transparency must be heeded if the Windsor Framework is to succeed, Brian Walker presents continuing discussions on the operation of the Windsor Framework as being simply a case of finding practical solutions to practical problems. But there are at least five distinct games being played here:

1. The DUP need continuing justifications for avoiding the appointment of a SF First Minister, and any problem will do, even if it was also a problem under the previous pre-Brexit dispensation (see phytosanitary controls). Jim Allister and Nigel Dodds are right, of course, to state that the DUP’s Seven tests have not been met. They could never have been met. Leaving the EU has greatly complicated matters for Northern Ireland, leaving it in a more distant relationship from Britain than would have been the case under “an ever closer union”. But whose fault was that? Their performative anger now, is to distract from their own past culpability.

2. The UK government is trying to secure as many of the benefits of the Single market as possible, without having to actually agree to the free movement of labour, a basic requirement for formally re-joining the Single Market. Thus, the UK government hopes any concessions the EU agrees for Larne can be extended to Calais in due course.

3. The EU is trying to prevent Northern Ireland from becoming a “back-door” for non-compliant and contraband goods entering the Single market. The fact that Northern Ireland is such a small market on the periphery of the Single market means some of its measures may seem disproportionate to the scale of the problems they are trying to solve. But their problem is that they will come under extreme pressure from all other third countries on all EU borders to give them the same concessions the EU has given to Northern Ireland, and by extension, to the UK.

4. The Irish government is happy so long as the land border remains open, ensuring there is no bar to the further integration of the all-Ireland economy – to the benefit of the whole Ireland. Some Irish exporters may even route their exports to Britain through Northern Ireland companies, if that avoids problems with new important controls the UK is due to implement on EU exports. The DUP see this as a slippery slope to a politically united Ireland, and so are opposed to this even where it is clearly to the benefit of the Northern Ireland economy.

5. Northern Ireland businesses have varying interests, with agriculture hugely dependent on and integrated into the all-Ireland economy. The potential problems are mainly for those smaller Northern Ireland companies almost exclusively focused on the UK market for supplies or sales. Others are reducing their dependency on the UK market and have found no great problems in doing so through the Single Market/Ireland. It is not as if any Veterinary medicines required cannot be supplied through Ireland and this may even be a requirement if the resulting meat products s are to be exported into the EU. The issue is with maintaining the near monopoly UK companies are used to having in the Northern Ireland market. However, most UK and other large companies are treating the whole island as a single market, and thus support (however tacitly) the Irish government stance.

Having realised that the Johnson/Truss/Frost confrontational approach was getting them nowhere and was losing them friends world-wide, the Sunak government’s overwhelming interest is in improving UK/EU relations. For example, the UK’s accession to the CPTPP was explicitly conditional on it honouring its treaties with the EU. A trade deal with the USA is still off the table. Any problems with the “sea border” are small beer in comparison, and the DUP’s pleas will fall on deaf ears – always subject to para. 2. above – where the UK government hopes any concessions the EU makes for Larne can be extended to Calais in due course (thereby also reducing the grounds for DUP complaints about Northern Ireland being treated differently).

Of course, that is “cakeism” writ large, and why the EU’s approach is seen as tardy and inflexible from a UK perspective. The EU started from a “maximalist” position with a Johnson Government which had shot its own negotiating position and was desperate for a deal. Now it is getting down to the practical brass tacks from a position of strength and has no interest in being unnecessarily obstructive. Northern Ireland is small beer in a market of 450 million.

What is different is that the EU is dependent on His Majesty’s Customs Service to implement any agreed protocols. That requires levels of mutual trust and understanding which has been in short supply since Brexit. It also requires flexibility from the UK side if new problems and threats are identified which existing protocols don’t adequately address. Customs management is an ongoing process, and the EU has to be wary of allowing a liberal regime now if it cannot be subsequently tightened when abuses are identified.

The EU has huge experience of managing the external borders of its 27 member states with all other trading nations and any suggestion that it doesn’t know what its doing is ludicrous. Of course, the rules are designed to favour EU products over imports, that’s what governments do to protect their national interests, and if anything, global trade is becoming more protectionist and less open at the moment, thanks, in part, to Johnson and Trump. This is not a good time to be out on your own.

Touting membership of the CPTPP as a diplomatic triumph is an act of pure desperation. At best it is expected to facilitate growth of 0.08% in 15 years, when the UK has already lost 4% due to Brexit. (Fifty times more). Trade is still heavily related to geographical proximity, all the more so with rising strategic supply chain risks and fuel costs. Leaving the EU and joining the CPTPP makes no strategic or economic sense whatsoever. The UK already had bilateral treaties with 9 of the 11 CPTPP members in any case, and now it is even more likely to get caught up in the thorny China/Taiwan relationship, as both have also applied to join.

The UK also aspires to a position of global leadership in Artificial Intelligence regulation. Good luck with that if you have gained a reputation for the wholesale indiscriminate abolition of regulations you haven’t even considered in depth. De-regulation was supposed to be a key part of the Brexit Britain project. Global regulation is also all about respecting international law – not a strong point for Brexiteer Britain in recent times.

The narrative that the Windsor Framework requires further clarification is all coming from the UK. For the EU it is now down to customs officials and technical trade experts doing their jobs – managing any new issues with contraband as they arise. Customs checks are always selective, risk assessed, and intelligence led. It does nobody’s bank balance any good to engage in useless bureaucracy – witness the UK’s own tardy efforts at implementing controls on imports from the EU.

Somehow this was never supposed to happen in the sunny uplands of Brexit where the UK could have its cake and eat it with no checks either way. If you take your foreign policy advice from Sammy Wilson et al, be prepared for things to turn out not quite as you planned.

Some unionists still appear to feel that keeping the Assembly dormant gives them leverage over the UK and Irish governments and the EU. The stark reality is that all three have moved on and are resigned to the DUP marching to their own drumbeat. If necessary, the North South and East West strands of the Good Friday Agreement will be beefed up to compensate for the lack of devolution within Northern Ireland.

Relationships between the sovereign players are now back to something approaching an even keel and the priority is to improve overall economic cooperation, trade, and prosperity. Ireland is slowly integrating economically. The politics can wait as far as the sovereign players are concerned. They have other fish to fry. Too bad for the people of Northern Ireland who would like to see Northern Ireland function better and achieve a greater share of that prosperity. That will be down to the local parties reaching a new accommodation. It will have very little to do with the outworking of the Windsor framework.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.