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Will the Windsor Framework be a winner?

28 February 2023
Public Affairs

By Emily Chen

The Windsor Framework is the result of the ongoing Northern Ireland Protocol negotiations. Following several rounds of negotiation, gradually intensifying over the last week, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak had what one diplomat described as a “meeting of minds”. On Monday evening, the PM announced that a deal had been made: The Windsor Framework. But what does it say and what questions remain before it can be regarded a success?  

1.What does it say? 

The framework delivers a form of dual regulation for business and consumers in Northern Ireland by creating lighter touch checks for goods within the UK Internal Market. It would lift the ban on some goods which had been banned in NI, give lawmakers in NI a “veto” on application of EU rules, and ECJ oversight to new or amended EU goods rules which would have a significant impact on businesses or people in NI. 

An ‘agreement in principle’, the deal will now need to pass through a debate and votes in Westminster. 

2. Will this resolve the power sharing issue in Northern Ireland?  

Due to the absence of power-sharing in Stormont - as a result of the DUP boycotting the election of an assembly speaker, the first step to creating a ministerial executive - public policy making has been at somewhat of a standstill. But the hope is that this will now change, if the DUP can be convinced to support the Windsor Framework.  

Thus far, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson (DUP leader) had warned that the agreement must still pass seven tests to earn the party’s support. This morning he said that “the proposals go some way to addressing concerns that caused its boycott, but issues remain”.  Compared to language used with former PM Liz Truss, where he said  she should ‘tread sensitively’ should she wish the DUP to return to Stormont, the Windsor Framework can be justifiably regarded as the most successful initiative by British Prime Ministers to restore the Irish Executive. Moreover, supporting the deal is the only way for parties to use their veto power – the so-called Stormont Brake. To sell the plan, the PM travelled to Belfast to engage with Stormont's biggest political parties. The signs are positive, but the final verdict will come when all parties have considered the merits of the deal in detail. 

3. Will this unite the Conservatives?  

The PM has now left Belfast to meet the 1922 Committee of backbench Tory MPs in Westminster whose support he will need to get the deal through. The European Research Group (ERG) has historically been the most vocal critical faction of the Tories. One of the top ERG members – and former Brexit Opportunities Minister - Jacob Rees Mogg MP, has asserted that Conservative MPs are waiting for the DUP to formally support or reject the deal before declaring their views. He warned that Conservatives may be very ‘unhappy’ should the DUP reject the deal. If the DUP are unsatisfied, Eurosceptic MPs could regard the deal as unnecessary pandering to the EU. It will not be clear how Conservatives feel for some time; Sunak has said that there will be ‘time and space’ for everyone to consider the deal. But first signs are positive with another ERG MP Steve Baker – who also holds responsibilities as Northern Ireland Minister - urged fellow Eurosceptics to back the deal calling Sunak’s compromise ‘high level statecraft’.  

 Former PM Theresa May MP feels that the agreement is in ‘the best interests of all people of Northern Ireland’, whereas Boris Johnson has reportedly urged the DUP to be cautious.  

Despite the immediate response not being overwhelmingly conclusive, it is of note that MPs are abundantly aware of the costs of another failed negotiation with Northern Ireland. As part of negotiations, the EU has dropped its current legal challenge against the UK. Conversely showing unity in the party with the narrative to have delivered on Brexit... Again, could be key at the next election to a Conservative Party win.  

4. What does this mean for businesses?  

The agreement seems to be a broad step forward for businesses. However, Sir Bill Cash MP is correct in saying that ‘the devil as ever lies in the detail’. First signs are positive with the CBI congratulating the EU and UK for “resolving the deadlock” urging work to understand and successfully implement new arrangements to start immediately.  

However, businesses shipping goods will need to wait a little while still as the Government must first pass the deal and then aims to "consult and work with business over the coming months ahead of implementing any changes required by these arrangements.” 

UK in a Changing Europe also cautioned that the process to becoming a ‘trusted trader’ (and therefore qualifying for the ‘green’ zone) may be too cost and time intensive for smaller businesses. FSB NI policy chairman, Alan Lowry, gave positive signs but is looking to engage how well this addresses some members’ challenges before celebrating. 

5. What does this mean for our relationship with the EU?  

The number of concessions obtained imply that Rishi Sunak has built a good relationship with the EU. The mood music reported by media also suggested that compared to his male predecessor, Sunak had built almost warm rapport with key figures in Brussels. In announcing the deal, Rishi Sunak said that this announcement marked ‘the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship’. This was made possible by his acknowledgment that ‘there will be some role for EU law’ in Northern Ireland. As a result, the UK-EU relationship Has returned to a pragmatic level, much welcomed after the tension created by the – what some perceived as a threat – Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Had the Bill passed in the absence of a new agreement, negotiations would have been both protracted and would have led to a continuation of the damaging legal action the EU commenced in June.