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Brexit in name only – no wonder the Remainers are cock-a-hoop

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ON THE face of it, the grandiosely named ‘Windsor Framework’ is a major step forward in how Brexit will apply practically in Northern Ireland. So many politicians we might have expected to be critical of it have either given cautious approval, expressed weary resignation or focused on presentational aspects of it regarding the constitutional issues which flow from King Charles III’s audience with Ursula von der Leyen which implies his approval of this deal.

Anything which ends, or greatly cuts, the trade barrier down the Irish Sea and the excessive bureaucratic meddling of EU officials in enforcing it has to be welcomed. The vast majority of goods entering Northern Ireland from the mainland are clearly intended solely for use in Northern Ireland, and at last all sides recognise that fact with the provisions in the Framework for so-called Green and Red Lane procedures for customs checks. 

The Framework is also a pragmatic recognition that there are two traditions in Northern Ireland, a Unionist tradition which looks across to the British mainland and a Nationalist one which looks south to the Republic of Ireland.

However the uncomfortable implication for the United Kingdom as a whole is that these arrangements in effect ensure that Brexit will largely be Brexit In Name Only (BRINO). That is implicit since the EU have already declared that the arrangements can work only if any divergences in taxation or regulations between London and Brussels are of a modest nature, such as VAT levels never falling below the minimum for EU members.

This is because the ‘Green Lane’ aspect of the new trading arrangement hinges on what the EU define as ‘Trusted Trader’ status being given to the firms trading with Northern Ireland from the British mainland. The EU’s version of the Windsor Framework makes clear the Trusted Trader scheme can be suspended unilaterally by the EU if it determines that is necessary for the protection of the EU Single Market. 

For the EU, the UK remains within the original Northern Ireland Protocol. It even declares that ‘the Windsor Framework has been fully carried out within the framework of the 2020 Withdrawal Agreement, of which the Protocol is an integral part’. For the EU, the European Court of Justice will remain the final arbiter of Single Market issues. That came directly from the lips of von der Leyen at the presentation which concluded her meeting with Prime Minister Sunak. This means potential EU fines for supposed UK breaches of Single Market regulations in Northern Ireland, or retaliatory sanctions in other areas. That will also act as a considerable deterrent to the so-called Stormont brake being activated, as those same forces would be triggered too.

There will also be a natural political imperative for British ministers not to appear to be treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK. So in reality the Windsor Framework gives the EU their device of choice to keep the UK anchored to Brussels.

Indeed, paragraph 52 of the Framework raises that very point: that the UK Government will ensure that any risks arising from regulatory divergence from the EU will be monitored and tackled. So the chance that the UK might, at some point, have different laws from the EU is described as a ‘risk’. Although the focus is on internal divergence that can happen only by diverging from the EU.

So much for all the fine talk during the Referendum of Britain becoming ‘Singapore on Thames’ and using its new-found freedom to gain a competitive edge over the EU, which let us remember has become an increasingly shrinking part of the world economy in recent years.

Plans for the UK to join the CPTPP (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) appear to be drifting on to the back burner. The CPTPP at least has the merits of being a genuine trading bloc consisting of some of the world’s most thriving economies and unlike the EU has no plans to mutate into a superstate with its own army, embassies, flag and anthem.

The Retained EU Law Bill, the mechanism for repealing many EU laws incorporated into UK law, is similarly bogged down in a hostile House of Lords.

No wonder the Remainer/Rejoiner Establishment throughout British politics, the media, the civil service et al are cock-a-hoop. If this is where Brexit is to be parked by a supposedly pro-Brexit administration, it doesn’t take much to guess where the direction of travel will be when it is replaced by an incoming Starmer or other pro-EU administration. Everything suitably parked and ready for increasingly closer ties with the EU at the earliest opportunity.

Leading Brexit supporters by contrast appear wrong-footed, either muted in their opposition or even ready to support the Windsor Framework. Steve Baker has spoken of the impact the Brexit struggle has had on his mental health, Jacob Rees-Mogg, David Davis and other ERG members are prepared to support the measure, Richard Tice of Reform UK largely speaks only of his disappointment with the measure. Nigel Farage has expressed his concerns. So far, he has left it at that. From Boris Johnson, remarkably out of character, we have only silence.

Above all, no one wants to torpedo the potential for power-sharing to be revived at Stormont, and most Northern Ireland businesses seem satisfied with the new measures.

The objections I have raised, however, are far more than mere semantics. Economically the UK will remain largely shackled to a trading bloc increasingly in decline, which will not hesitate to use the UK as its whipping boy whenever it suits the EU.

The public voted definitively for Brexit three times in just over three years: in the 2016 Referendum, in the 2019 European elections which saw the Brexit Party top the polls and Brexit-supporting parties get the majority share of the overall vote, and of course in the 2019 ‘Get Brexit Done’ General Election. The public were promised ‘we would take back control’, but the Establishment will have none of it, and have been content to see perfectly laudable Brexit aspirations wither by their association with an increasingly toxic, out of touch, governing party in Westminster.

The Windsor Framework is a stark reminder of who still holds the real power in the UK-EU relationship and that genuine sovereignty has not been recovered by the UK. The UK government basically had to ask the EU for their permission for going ahead with arrangements to facilitate trade within two parts of the United Kingdom, instead of announcing their own plans such as those contained in the now aborted Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. That subservient relationship will become increasingly clear in the coming years.

Some might ask why I care so much about sovereignty. Possibly the best answer was provided by Michael Foot in probably the best speech of his career in the 1975 Referendum on staying in the EU (then called the European Community) when he said that sovereignty wasn’t just an abstract notion. Sovereignty was also about democracy: ‘When Roy Jenkins tells us “We don’t need to cling to sovereignty”, I say that we do need to cling to democracy, and we need to cling to the democratic institutions which we have fashioned to serve ourselves in this country.’

Perhaps we should have listened to Foot more carefully. He was speaking far more sense about our future than we could have then imagined.

This article appeared on Patrick Clarke’s Column on March 2, 2023, and is republished by kind permission. 

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Patrick Clarke
Patrick Clarke
Patrick Clarke was briefly active in politics during the 1970's before leaving to 'get a life'. You can read more articles from Patrick Clarke in his Substack column.

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