When God closes a door, sometimes the window stays shut.

In London and Belfast two events occurred that at first glance seem only tangentially related but which when taken together seem to set the course for our own future after the election is out of the way.

The first, as this report in The Guardian from Eleni Courea makes clear, deals with the poverty of Labour’s ambitions regarding closer trade links with the European Union.

As Eleni writesLabour’s EU policy amounts to “tinkering around the edges of the current relationship” and will do little to “address the continuing economic impacts of Brexit”, a report has concluded.

An audit of UK-EU relations by the thinktank UK in a Changing Europe concluded that Labour had ruled out changes that would have made the biggest impact on economic growth.”

She further elaborates that “But the report argues that without the UK rejoining the single market or customs union – both of which Labour has ruled out – more limited agreements would be unlikely to have much impact on the UK’s economic growth.

“With economic growth a priority, the most obvious source of such growth will have been ruled out in the manifesto,” it says. “For the moment, Starmer and his team seem content to talk in terms of tinkering around the edges of the current relationship.”

Now, of course, it is not hard to understand Labour’s reasoning here. With Keir Starmer adhering religiously to the ‘porcelain vase’ approach of electioneering (wherein every potential misstep must be avoided at all costs, lest it send the ‘porcelain vase’ – symbolic of his election victory – crashing to the ground) the last thing he wants to do is advocate for closer ties with the EU and so spook those voters who plunked for ‘leave’ back in 2016 and who gave Boris Johnson their vote in 2019. That would give the Tories the opportunity to portray Starmer as a betrayer of the referendum just waiting to get into Number 10 so he can drag us all back into the embrace of the EU, and with nothing else seeming to work for them right now in moving the polls, re-fighting the last war would be irresistible.

Starmer though is ducking the fight. Perhaps he intends for a more aggressive approach once he is in office but without including any policy more substantial in the manifesto, he will lack any mandate to push for integration faster and harder after his (expected) victory. Besides, the gradualism he is offering has the right ring of authenticity about it. It feels very much on brand.

Couple that with the European Union’s evident satisfaction with the arrangements as they stand, any big changes in the years to come seem unlikely, and any changes that do come are likely to be limited.

What the UK has now is probably as good as it can get without Labour being willing to offer more.

Which of course segues neatly into the second of the events that occurred today, in Belfast. The DUP’s final abandoning of any pretence that they felt the Windsor Framework was a strong basis for the restoration of devolution during the SDLP’s Opposition Day debate.

As David Thompson writes here in the Newsletter

The DUP appears to have formally abandoned its support for the deal it said earlier this year had restored Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom – as it endorsed alternative trade arrangements in a Stormont debate.”

David goes on to write that “…this morning, Deborah Erskine said “the DUP has been clear that arrangements to which Northern Ireland is currently subject to – impact and undermine the integrity of the UK’s Internal Market”.

The Fermanagh MLA said “We are firmly of the view that it does not require the application of large swathes of EU law on Northern Ireland to secure advantages and mutually beneficial trading arrangements. Mutual recognition would say 5% of businesses in Northern Ireland to trade with the EU, monitored by UK authorities to ensure they have compiled with complied with EU standards”.

It became pretty clear a few weeks ago when Gavin Robinson denounced the deal he had a part in negotiating that the pressure within Unionism on the DUP to admit that they had oversold the Windsor Framework was becoming overwhelming.

Then, as now, it was hard to see what the DUP can do about it.

The DUP and other Unionists have now returned to pushing for mutual enforcement as the solution and if that rings a bell it’s because it was raised as the answer several times during the Brexit talks, only to be rejected by an uninterested European Union on every occasion.

And what are the chances of a Labour government whose members never wanted Brexit to begin with deciding to try and re-open negotiations with the European Union on Northern Ireland (for what would be the fourth time of asking!), at the behest of the Democratic Unionist Party (whom Labour MPs are likely to have a low opinion of),  to renegotiate a deal the European Union is not only happy with but afforded the UK government considerable leeway in unilaterally softening to push a solution the European Union has rejected on multiple previous occasions and all while Labour seeks closer ties?

The chances are bound to be incredibly low.

And that is where the think tank report mentioned at the begining comes back into the conversation. Given reopening negotiations on the protocol is a non-starter, the only other feasible path for unionism was for the incoming Labour government to soften Brexit for the UK as a whole, leading to a less onerous protocol as a result (even at the cost of Brexit itself being weakened).

Yet if the report is right, then what Labour is willing to do is probably not enough to have a practical impact on the operation of the protocol. Goods will still be checked, and the Irish sea border will remain.

While everyone else moves on from Brexit, the DUP and TUV seemingly remain stuck, unable to process it or reconcile themselves to its outcome. Instead they are reheating the same old arguments that nobody in a position of power and influence is listening to and they appear doomed to nurse their sense of grievance of this issue going forwards, much as Unionists did over the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985.

The hope of a radical right-wing government determined to stick it to Brussels is probably the only path they have left, given their usual tactics of doing a deal, denouncing the deal, and then engaging in excruciating re-negotiations to marginally improve the deal have run out of road. Time may bear them out on that one, but it’s a long, long wait to 2029.

Still, it’s not all doom and gloom. As David writes “the Ulster Unionist Party – an early advocate of mutual enforcement – appeared to have flipped its position, backing the SDLP motion affirming “the huge opportunity” provided by the current trade arrangements.

Asked by the News Letter if this was now party policy – and if it has abandoned its opposition to the Irish Sea border – an Ulster Unionist spokesperson said its position “has not changed since 2019. It must be removed and the party has laid out their plans to remove it.”

Making the best of a bad situation with a dose or realism? A novel approach.


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.