Drawing on his remarks at the UK in a Changing Europe Annual Conference, Simon Usherwood analyses the Windsor Framework and what it tells us about Sunak’s approach to the UK’s relationship with the EU.
The town of Windsor is full of potent symbols of the British state, but the place doesn’t actually matter much in the practical running of the country.
So too with the Windsor Framework, signed in February this year and flagged as an important (and positive) development in the relationship between the UK and the EU. While it seemed to address many of the concerns around Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit status it neither puts to bed the various question marks about constructive British engagement with European counterparts, nor does it mean that Brexit is ‘done’ and that the issue will return to the nerdier corners of Westminster.
Instead, it represents a return to a more classic mode of British European policy: pragmatic, but somewhat rudderless.
The Windsor package – already enacted in all its parts after a coordinated effort by both parties – reflects the general approach of Rishi Sunak to the situation he inherited from Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
This approach can be usefully understood as putting effort into projects where a clear political win can be secured (and be seen to be secured), while holding other issues in limbo.
The arguments over the Northern Ireland Protocol since 2020 were driven in large part by Johnson and his casting of himself as someone viscerally opposed to any action that could be seen as working with the EU (or ‘Europe’ more generally). This meant that there was no political incentive during this time to try to find a mutually acceptable solution.
The difference made by his departure in the summer of 2022 was visible even during Liz Truss’s brief tenure, with her attendance at the European Political Community summit in Prague and the simple mention of the EU as a key ally in her speeches.
At the same time British technical capacity to deliver on pragmatic improvements to the Protocol also increased, seen most publicly with the much-delayed delivery in early 2023 of a real-time monitoring system for goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
As such, Sunak was well-positioned in autumn 2022 to use the impending 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to move to a new settlement with the EU.
In substantive terms, the Framework is quite modest. Easements on checks and on the application of EU law in Northern Ireland were welcomed by traders. But the Stormont Brake and increased EU consultation of local stakeholders certainly don’t address the concerns raised by some in the Unionist community about the Protocol. The Brake allows the Northern Ireland Assembly to request that the UK government not apply specific new EU rules in Northern Ireland if certain conditions are met, which is a far cry from Unionist demands to scrape the entire Protocol. Indeed, it is notable how little legal amendment of that text there is, with even the use of the Windsor name not making it into statute.
Instead, the Framework reads like a document that it would have been possible to conclude in 2020, had the British government been willing and able to pursue a negotiated operationalisation of the original text: the technical capacity was delayed as much by Westminster dithering as anything else. Certainly, it is not the fundamental reworking (or rejection) that Johnson and others had pressed for.
Westminster isn’t Windsor
From a domestic political perspective, it could be argued that Sunak was motivated to press for the Windsor Framework precisely because it was a relatively self-contained package with immediate political benefits to him and his party. Note that there has not been a commensurate investment in the much harder and slower project of restoring power-sharing in Belfast, something that might generate little public acclaim outside of Northern Ireland.
In this view, Sunak’s political horizon stretches as far as the next general election, likely in late 2024: everything is directed to limiting Tory losses and to retaining a place for him and his politics afterwards. Which means the open-ended nature of UK-EU relations does not look like an obvious place to invest his energies.
So we might expect that there will be little more to show than further warm words and regular meetings in the remainder of this government’s time in office. Even the other obvious self-contained (and positive headline-inducing) package of a resumption of British participation in the EU’s Horizon research programme has run into the sands of negotiations over financial contributions.
Beyond that, the willingness to work towards institutionalised cooperation through firm treaty obligations, let alone full participation in more programmes, seems to be minimal. The growth in the number of non-binding agreements between the UK and individual EU member states reflects this.
From the EU’s side investment in building a relationship with a government that might well be out of power in not much more than a year is also a questionable call. Labour’s policy remains half-formed at present, so the degree of uncertainty about what is worth pursuing is even higher.
However, what Windsor does do is reaffirm British commitment to the Protocol and, by extension, to the regular conduct of international cooperation. This is a positive development for any future policy at a time when the international rules-based order needs bolstering rather than undermining.
What this return to polite international society does not do is produce a wider strategic objective that will drive policy choices, be that regarding the EU, Europe or international cooperation more generally. Ever since the early days of European integration in the immediate post-war period, the UK has struggled to decide what it is trying to achieve in its dealings with European states.
Neither the decision to join the EEC nor the decision to leave the EU was accompanied by much reflection on how this connected to a view of the country’s place in the world nor to its view of itself. In this respect, Brexit has been a decision without a widely-shared rationale, sharply contributing to the subsequent fights over what it might mean.
Pragmatic managerialism might be the order of the day, but before too long the UK is likely to find itself at another crossroads in its relationship with the EU, as situations change, problems arise and attentions drift. At which point we will remember that just because we are done with Brexit, Brexit isn’t necessarily done with us.
By Professor Simon Usherwood, Senior Fellow, UK in a Changing Europe.