Rishi Sunak’s Brexit Deal Shows what Britain Lost by Leaving the EU
In seeking praise for repairing some of the damage caused by Brexit, Rishi Sunak’s new deal only highlights the damage caused by cutting ties with the EU, reports Adam Bienkov
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Addressing a packed House of Commons last night, the Prime Minister said that his new Brexit deal with the EU would, among other things, allow the “seamless” and “completely free” travel of pets between Britain and Northern Ireland.
The agreement, Sunak announced, would therefore stop Brexit from “disrupting family life and our family of nations”.
While no doubt welcome news for those wishing to continue taking the family dog back and forth across the Irish Sea, this announcement sums up the fundamental absurdity of yesterday’s announcement.
After seven years of needless political, economic and logistical chaos – directly caused by Brexit – we are now being asked to praise the Prime Minister for clearing up a small part of the mess that he himself has created.
As the Labour Leader Keir Starmer commented after Sunak’s statement, “the Prime Minister just listed all the problems with the [Northern Ireland] Protocol. I did start to wonder whether he had forgotten who had negotiated it”.
That’s not to say that there isn’t much to welcome in the new agreement. The revised deal will reduce some of the barriers to trade that the Government itself imposed through Boris Johnson’s initial “oven-ready” deal. It also has the potential to allow for the restoration of self-government in Northern Ireland through the Stormont Assembly.
It remains to be seen quite how well this arrangement will work in practice. The so-called ‘Stormont Break’ will allow for politicians in Northern Ireland to dis-apply changes to EU law if they are viewed as having a significant impact on internal UK trade. Some have compared this to the ‘Right of Reservation’ handed to members of the European Economic Area.
Yet, while that power has almost never been used by Norway and other member countries, the Stormont break could prove much trickier. By allowing it to be applied if just a third of Assembly members, and two parties, wish to do so, the agreement is effectively handing unionist parties a unilateral veto, which if regularly applied could cause the breakdown of the entire agreement.
Only time will tell whether the harmony seen in Nordic countries can be replicated in the fractious political environment of Northern Ireland.
But, overall, the deal undoubtedly has the potential to repair a small part of the damage caused by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. Yet, in repairing that damage, Sunak’s Government is asking us to forget who it was that caused it in the first place.
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As Sunak himself responded to Starmer’s jibe in the chamber last night, “at this moment in time, the right thing for all of us to do is not to look backwards, but to look forward”.
While it is obviously very much in the Prime Minister’s own interest for us not to look backwards at who created the mess he is now claiming the credit for partially clearing up, to do so would be a huge mistake.
After seven years, Sunak’s Government has still not identified a single meaningful benefit of the Brexit process that he campaigned for and implemented. Instead, we have merely experienced a lengthy period of political chaos and economic stagnation which we are now only slowly starting to repair.
By the time the wider Brexit agreement comes up for renewal in 2025, we will have lived through almost a decade since the EU Referendum. If the best we can say at the end of that period is that the threat to pet-owners wishing to take their animal from one part of the United Kingdom to another has been narrowly avoided then it will be incredibly slim pickings indeed.
Sunak’s renegotiation thus only serves to further highlight quite what a wasted decade we have lived through.
Since 2016, huge political and financial resources have been spent on trying to limit the damage done by Britain’s decision to leave the EU. After seven years, the vast majority of that damage continues to apply and will continue to do so as long as the rest of the United Kingdom remains outside of the Single Market that Northern Ireland is being kept partially within.
The blame for this lies at the door of those who campaigned for Brexit in the way that they did and then negotiated a deal, which even Sunak is now publicly admitting was hugely inadequate.
That includes the Prime Minister, of course, but also Boris Johnson, who was notably absent from the Commons last night. As Adam Payne of Politics Home reported last night, while Sunak was preparing to explain his improved Brexit deal to MPs, Johnson was busily trying to persuade the DUP not to back it, as part of his apparent bid to oust Sunak from Downing Street. As ever with Johnson, the interests of the nation almost always appear to be subservient to his own personal ambition.
Indeed, it is largely thanks to Johnson’s own terrible behaviour and negotiating skills that Sunak’s own success this week appears so much brighter by contrast.
Yet, while the Prime Minister may be tempted to perform a victory lap in the glow of the praise spread across this morning’s newspapers, to do so would be incredibly unwise.
If the so-called ‘Windsor Framework’ turns out to be a success then it will be because it repairs some of the huge damage caused to Britain’s relations with the EU since 2016. Already there were signs in Sunak’s press conference with European Commission President Ursula von Der Leyen yesterday that we could be starting to see the return of more pragmatic cross-channel relations.
Yet it is precisely those positive relations that continue to be most damaged by Brexit and it is only by continuing to restore some of those links that Britain’s situation can ever improve.
In that respect, Sunak’s renegotiation has only served to further highlight both the damage caused by Brexit and the route through which Britain can ultimately recover from it.
When the Prime Minister and his colleagues campaigned to leave the EU, his opponents warned that it would leave Britain in a state of political isolation and paralysis. That is exactly what has happened.
This week, Sunak gave just a brief a glimpse of an alternative future. Under that future, Britain would be able to actually co-operate and work alongside its closest neighbours. Through negotiation, the UK and the EU would be able to pool shared interests and resources, while avoiding damaging political conflicts that only serve to hurt both sides.
Of course, imaging that alternative future does not take a huge leap of brain power. All it takes is the ability to look back a short distance to when we were last inside the EU.