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The EU-UK Windsor Framework Is the Right Step Forward

The political situation in Northern Ireland continues to be delicate but the most recent agreement between the EU and the UK is a positive development and a reason for hope.
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March 18, 2023 08:04 EDT
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It looks as if the UK Parliament will endorse the Windsor Framework. The flexibilities it has introduced into the Northern Ireland Protocol will be  beneficial to people in their daily lives. It will restore good relations between the UK and the EU, something good in itself.

It will not necessarily resolve the crisis in the Good Friday Agreement quickly though. It is not certain that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly will be restored. The split in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the protocol is not healed. There is still a border in the Irish Sea.

For the DUP, taking part in the Executive still means serving in a body in which a Sinn Fein politician will be “First” Minister. In reality, of course, the Deputy First Minister, presumably a DUP member, would have exactly equal power to the First Minister. Yet appearances matter and the DUP does not want to be seen to have lower status.

Perfection should not be the enemy of the possible

The situation in Northern Ireland might not be ideal but we need to keep a sense of proportion. Although the Good Friday Agreement is 20 years old, it was only fully operational half the time. When it was operational, the Executive did not really operate on a basis of full collective responsibility, as illustrated in the “cash-for-ash” inquiry.

Neither the North/South nor East/West institutions of the Agreement operated at anything near their full potential. Yet the Agreement did provide a pretext in 1998 for paramilitaries to end their violence, which they already knew was getting them nowhere. In that contextual sense, it has brought us peace. But it is hard to say that there has been significant political or cultural reconciliation between the communities because of the Agreement. Arguably the communities are further apart.

The two novelties in the Windsor Framework are the “Stormont Brake”, and the provision of a Green Lane for goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland. The brake has got the most attention. It is not a veto. It is a mechanism whereby 30 members of legislative assembly (MLAs) can raise a red flag about a new or amended EU law that is to apply in Northern Ireland, and force an examination of it.

Given the negative perceptions of the EU in Ulster Unionist circles, there are worries that this mechanism could be triggered capriciously, as a partisan lever, rather than for practical reasons. The Windsor Framework says the brake is only to be used as a “last resort,” and where there is a risk of “significant or lasting damage.”

These terms are open to varying interpretations, especially if there is a trust deficit between some MLAs and the EU. It may be that, after a long delay, specific cases, in which the brake has been pulled, will go to international arbitrators, who will then tell us exactly what these terms mean in practice. Meanwhile a lot of time will have been lost and business disrupted.

EU laws in the UK

The UK is currently going through a process of deciding which EU laws it will continue to apply and which it will “restate, revoke or replace.” Nearly 3,800 pieces of EU sourced regulation will have to be examined and a decision made on whether to restate, revoke or amend them. Most of this work will take place behind closed doors, and at breakneck speed, because the whole process is supposed to be complete by the end of this year.

The risk of catastrophic regulatory mistakes is enormous. The area of biggest concern is food safety.  We all know how food scares can do lasting reputational damage to a country. I hope that the civil service in the UK is sufficiently well staffed to do the job well. 

The worry on this side of the border is that substandard ingredients might enter Northern Ireland, via the newly liberalized Green Lane, and then find their way into final products, exported from here to continental Europe or further afield. This would be especially alarming if food products are involved. The combination of a lightly regulated Green Lane, with no controls at all on our land border with the UK, means that the risk is not negligible.

It is true that only goods that meet EU standards will be allowed to enter the EU tariff-free under the EU-UK Trade Agreement, and the tariffs can be collected at any time. But once something that fails to meet EU standards gets into the supply chain, the damage is done. Hence, detection will be key. One hopes that technologies and artificial intelligence can be used to help in this work. Thus, Ireland will need to invest heavily in detection..

All in all, the Windsor Framework is a good day’s work. It happened because there was mutual respect between British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and his EU counterparts. Such respect did not exist between the EU and recent previous prime ministers. There are valuable lessons to be learned from this: mutual respect matters in international relations.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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