In an increasingly dangerous world marked by Russia’s war in Ukraine or China’s growing assertiveness, the European Union and United Kingdom (who share the same values and alliances) could not afford to remain embroiled in endless Brexit wrangling. That’s the conclusion they came to Ursula von der Leyen and Rishi Sunak after their first meeting at the end of last year, according to the president.
A joint awareness that has led this Monday to the “Windsor agreement”whose main political value is that Brussels and London agree to definitively leave behind the acrimony of divorce and start a “new stage” of collaboration on the world stage. A new beginning that materializes in the reform of the protocol on the Northern Ireland border, the main focus of tension in the last two years.
“If we look at the enormous challenges we face togetherWhether it’s Russia’s atrocious war in the Ukraine or the fight against climate change, we have so much in common! We are fighting for the same values, we are on the same sideside by side, and we want the best solution for the people of Northern Ireland”, the president of the Commission recounted at a joint press conference with Sunak, before meeting with King Charles III.
[La UE y Reino Unido alcanzan un acuerdo sobre la frontera de Irlanda del Norte tras el Brexit]
With Boris Johnson, The tension between the European Union and the United Kingdom reached such high levels that it was about to trigger an open trade war between the ex-spouses. The British Government initiated the processing of a law that allowed unilaterally amend the Northern Ireland protocol, suppressing customs controls and ending the protection of the Court of Justice of the EU (CJEU). Brussels responded with an arsenal of legal actions against London for skipping the Brexit deal.
The factor that changed everything was the coming to power of Rishi Sunak after the short-lived government of Liz Truss. A first-time ‘Brexitero’ politician but with a pragmatic profile totally removed from populism and Johnson’s constant gesticulation. Since Sunak was elected prime minister, the “music” of relations with the EU improves and the negotiations are unblocked, community sources explain.
The first agreement came in January 2023: the EU gets access to the British database that monitors the transit of goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom in real time. From now on, the dialogue speeds up but in “tunnel mode”, that is, with hardly any information coming through. Brussels has let Sunak filter the agreed solutions with droppers and the one who boast of having wrested concessions that neither Johnson nor Truss were able to. “For the EU, the main value of the agreement is the agreement itself,” the sources stress.
Of course, the Community Executive maintains that none of its red lines have been crossed. The “Windsor agreement” contains all the necessary safeguards to guarantee the integrity of the European single market and reserves the last word in the resolution of disputes that affect community law to the CJEU, Von der Leyen has presumed. The truth is that the EU always said that the Northern Ireland protocol was not going to be changed and in the end it has been.
[La UE y Londres logran un primer acuerdo para desbloquear el Brexit tras el ascenso de Sunak]
“The Windsor agreement is intended to benefit the people of Northern Ireland and to support all communities celebrating peace on the island of Ireland. And this is why I believe we can open a new chapter in our association: a stronger relationship between the EU and the UK, as close allies working hand in hand now and in the future,” said von der Leyen.
“The United Kingdom and the European Union may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, business partners and friends. Something we saw clearly last year when we joined others in supporting Ukraine. This is the start of a new chapter in our relationship,” the British Prime Minister agreed.
The first sample of this reconciliation on the part of Brussels will be accept London as a member of the Horizon Europe research program. Sunak’s government has pledged to drop the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Act, while the Commission will in turn halt infringement proceedings against the UK. In addition, the end of the conflict clears the way to “take advantage of the full potential” of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom.
To protect the peace in Ulster and avoid a border dividing the island, Brussels and London agreed in their divorce a special status for Northern Ireland, which remains bound to the EU internal market rules on goods. That means that, in practice, the border has been moved to the Irish Sea, with new controls on products arriving at Northern Irish ports from the rest of the UK. Northern Irish unionists denounce that this system puts the territorial integrity of the country at risk.
The solution agreed upon by Sunak and Von der Leyen consists of creating two separate lanes, one red and one green. Products from Great Britain destined solely for Northern Ireland will travel through the green lane, with fewer phytosanitary controls and customs red tape. Some controls that would be applied in the red lane to those products likely to enter Ireland and therefore into the single European market.
The other great novelty consists of a “emergency break” which will allow the Stormont parliament to request the suspension of new European laws that have “a significant and lasting impact” on the population. A “last resort” mechanism that according to Sunak will correct the “democratic deficit” in Northern Ireland.
The “Windsor Agreement” it could still be shipwrecked in its internal processing in the United Kingdom, where it has to be ratified by Parliament in Westminster. Sunak has yet to overcome resistance from both Northern Irish unionists and the more eurosceptic current of his own Tory party, led by Johnson and Truss. The EU has done everything possible to win this battle.