Implementing the Windsor Framework

The recurring trope of getting Brexit ‘done’ is incredibly hard to escape: the public (including my family, as far as I can tell) would love not to have the matter occupy their minds any more, and those more connected to matters would love to be in a more regular steady state.

Sadly, things don’t actually work like that.

So the Windsor Framework is not only not a ‘doing’ of Brexit, but its unveiling at the end of February wasn’t even the ‘doing’ of the Framework itself: it’s a pile of bits and pieces, almost all of which require more work to be given effect.

To keep some track of this, I’ve made the graphic below, which includes all of the Framework elements and their current status between being announced and coming into effect: I’ll update regularly.

Some notes are in order here though.

Firstly, even this busy graphic doesn’t include everything. The British government has made various other (vaguer) commitments, on a Parliamentary vote and on the arrangements for the Brake,  but until we have something closer to chapter and verse on their form I’m keeping these off the table.

Secondly, processes of approval vary wildly here. The stuff that’s ‘in effect’ are just statements, while several of the other things have to get through multiple steps in the EU, or the UK or the Joint Committee structure. As much as possible, I will link out to document versions (the PDF version has all the clickable links), since that’s obviously of consequence, although the logic of the Framework is that the scope for deviating from the original package is pretty limited.

Finally, all of this just highlights once more that the Protocol (and by extension Brexit as a whole) is a process: the Brake is a response to the dynamic nature of single market alignment. Which means we are never going to get to a fixed end-point in this, just varying degrees of stability and resilience of mechanisms to manage that evolving relationship.

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The Stormont Brake

The other evening I had a quick drink in Brussels with a bunch of people who could, by any reasonable definition, be described as experts on the technicalities of Brexit.

As I struggled with the whole order-your-beer-via-an-app thing, they discussed the Windsor Framework, as one does in such settings. It was clear that they (just like me) are still very much getting to grips with how it works.

As well as all the documents published last week, it’s increasingly clear that there will be a raft of further legislation and enabling procedure to make it all work. And that lawyers are going to get a lot of billable hours out of this.

A case in point is the Stormont Brake, the new mechanism to allow Northern Ireland a say on the introduction of new EU legislation there.

The graphic at the bottom of this post represents several hours on my part working through multiple documents, another couple of hours trying to re-organise that into a more useable form, and then various exchanges on Twitter about what I’ve missed.

Jess Sargeant at the IfG is the only other person who seems willing to try to do this exercise too and her version is very much worth your time, since it’s much better than mine about process:

What I do have is conditions. Lots of conditions.

The first objective here seems to be balancing the giving of voice to Northern Irish concerns about new legislation with the impairment of the Protocol’s functioning. The EU closely defined in the original text what was the minimum needed to keep the North-South border open, so any derogation from that is potentially a problem.

Hence the power given to MLAs is highly circumscribed and highly unlikely to be used (see Steve Peers’ excellent analysis on this too).

The second objective is about incentivising the DUP to return to power-sharing: none of the Brake can work without functioning institutions or a rather vague requirement that MLAs are acting in good faith within those institutions: any hint of messing about on this is grounds to dismiss the entire exercise.

Finally I will note that there’s lots of paperwork requirements here and London has dumped that on Stormont: if the Assembly want to use the machinery then they are doing all of the heavy lifting.

So enjoy this one and remember that it requires not only the Windsor Framework documents to be turned into actual decisions and legislation, but also further activity within the UK on a TBC basis.

Which means next week’s work is going to be about timelines.

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Starting to unpack the Windsor Framework

The unveiling of the Windsor Framework this week was important in many ways.

Not only did it provide a set of solutions to the most pushing and tricky problems facing the Northern Ireland Protocol, but it also marked a return to more conventional modes of British diplomacy towards the EU.

To watch Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen at their press conference on Monday speaking in not only warm tones but also in very coordinated language, as they sought to generate (successfully) buy-in for a package of measures that had been put together under close secrecy.

As someone observed in my presence this week, no more of the leaking and briefing of the Johnson period, when everyone had an agenda and was just using the issue to get ahead.

Even if we still await a final confirmation of acceptance from both Tory backbenchers and the DUP, the signs are that this is the only game in town: evolving the Protocol into the Framework and (hopefully) letting everyone focus on further refinements to its operation and on other points of UK-EU cooperation.

So it matters.

But it’s also fair to say that the drafters of the Framework have decided to go for the ‘let’s make life not easy for the casual reader” approach.

Partly that’s because of the necessary mix of political statements and legal work, but it also conveniently makes it much harder for critics to point to obviously unacceptable language.

With that in mind, I’ve been working on trying to get a clearer picture of what’s going on.

My first graphic today organises the 21 documents by their status and effects: as you’ll see, much of this is about political clarifications and unilateral actions to resolve points.

There is one Joint Committee Decision that is crucial, and we’ll come back to that in coming weeks, not least to explore the new mechanisms of the Stormont Brake and the question of whether the CJEU’s role has actually changed at all (spoiler: not obviously).

Secondly, I took a quick go at the most significant obstacle to the Framework’s successful agreement and implementation: DUP approval for it.

Note that even if the DUP accepts the Framework, that does not necessarily mean it will either return to the Assembly or form an Executive under a Sinn Fein First Minister, even if the Stormont Brake is designed to get them to do exactly that.

Given that a functioning Executive is at least as important to Downing Street as making the Protocol work, the DUP’s decision matters.

Their seven tests from 2021 are still their baseline and as you’ll see while the Framework has indeed made progress on all points, none of them are unambiguously resolved to narrow readings of the DUP’s demands.

So still things to be played for and debates to be had.

If you have some aspect of the Framework you’ll like me to work on, just drop me a line and I’ll be happy to give it a go.

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More retained EU law (in all senses)

Rather than rake over the current indulge-fest that is the will-they-won’t-they of the Sunak deal with the EU over the Northern Ireland Protocol (although you can read my thoughts elsewhere, here and here), I notice it’s the time of the month to check back in on retained EU law (REUL).

Long-standing readers will know that since the middle of last year, I’ve been giving a damn about following the government’s published data on the project of working through all remaining pieces of legislation,  project that gained urgency with the Retained EU Law Bill that I’ve discussed a few weeks ago.

The visualisation provided has painted a picture of slow progress to date: between the first publication of the data in late June 2022 and the end of January this year, the only update was to correct one error. Otherwise, there was not a single instance of amending, repealed or replaced an item of REUL noted.

The simplest explanation was that the person who’d built the visualisation simply hadn’t had time (or been bothered) to update things. However, given that in the 19 months between leaving the EU and that first publication only 17% of REUL had been changed in some way, it might also be inferred that this was both a slow process and one where there actually was a good reason to keep the relevant REUL.

However, the REUL Bill has now set up a situation where all the remaining items need attention, since they would be otherwise automatically sunsetted/sunsat at the end of this calendar year.

As I noted in my previous post, part of the problem was the announcement by the National Archives in November that there was a significant additional volume of REUL that had been identified.

Despite all this incentive, the visualisation ticked on, in the narrow sense that there were no updates.

Until earlier this month, when a major upload took place.

This update took a while to properly populate the visualisation, but now we have a new snapshot of progress.

Significantly, all that extra REUL has now been brought into the mix. Almost all of it falls within DEFRA’s remit; a reflection of the extent to which agricultural policy had been centralised during EU membership, obscuring the operation of particular pieces of EU law.

That addition meant that there is no more unchanged REUL properly on the books than at any time since withdrawal.

However, that change in baseline does obscure some other important developments. If we assume that the newly-identified REUL has not been attended to (both because they only just found it and because that implies it wasn’t mission-critical), then we can see a big jump in REUL that has been changed.

In January 2023, before the update, 411 items were recorded as amended, repealed, replaced or expired, while one month later we have 671 items, a 63% jump. Again, we might sensibly assume this is the cumulative effort since June 2022 rather than some Stakhanovite push to please ministers: future month’s updates will tell us more on that front.

Consequently, the percentage of unchanged REUL did drop, albeit by a modest 0.8%.

Progress on this remains highly uneven at Departmental level. The only units that have made very big advances have been some of those with the smallest totals (Cabinet Office, DfE, MoJ). This is likely to be less a reflection of political will as it is a function of the depth of entanglement of the Department in matters EU during membership: Steven Barclay is hardly a soft Brexiteer yet his Department of Health and Social Care has the highest percentage of unchanged REUL of any unit.

All of which is to say that as much as there is progress on REUL, it is not progress that looks compatible with the REUL Bill timetable. The new data simply highlights the need for a much more measured approach that is driven by operational requirements rather than things that sound good in a soundbite.

You can look at my full data file here, and naturally I’ll keep you posted about further developments.

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Tracking the TCA implementation and enforcement

Last week’s third anniversary of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU also means it’s the third anniversary of the Trade & Cooperation Agreement (TCA).

The TCA is the oddly overlooked counterpart of the Withdrawal Agreement (with its troublesome Protocol), oddly because it is the much more substantial treaty, structuring the full breadth of current relations and containing space to include pretty much all the future relations too.

Of course, such a significant text comes with a degree of complexity, which we’ve looked at before on the OUatEU blog (here and here, for example).

One part of that complexity comes from the changing situation over time: we still have a number of transitional arrangements in place (both by mutual agreement and by unilateral proclamation) and a raft of reviews and sunset clauses to come in the next years.

The graphics below set out all of this, together with references to relevant information. Sadly, there’s nowhere that has a definitive resource for TCA matters (unlike Queen’s excellent Protocol tracker); both the EU and UK have rather dispersed bits and no simple way to pick up all the non-hard law decisions. Maybe if there’s a clamour from you, the readers, I might get to making such a thing myself.

In the meantime, take in the notion that we already know some things that will be happening in 2035.

This post was brought to you via a request from someone who uses these for teaching: I’m always happy to take requests like this, so just pop me a line or put a comment below and I’ll see what I can do.

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Getting to grips with Retained EU Law

I will freely admit that I have shied away from getting into the whole question of Retained EU Law, primarily because it’s much more about law in the UK than it is about EU law per se. I know enough to know that I don’t know much.

However, the question is one that cannot be ignored.

Firstly, the extent of Retained EU Law is such that how it is dealt with will have significant consequences for British legal systems, UK businesses and politics. The Retained EU Law (Revocation & Reform) Bill gives huge powers to the government to make changes to rules within effective Parliamentary oversight, for example.

Secondly, the headlong rush to sunset rules by the end of 2023 contains significant implications for the UK’s compliance with its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement and (especially) the Trade & Cooperation Agreement, the latter with its Level Playing Field requirements. Given that the UK government is still unclear as to quite what falls into the Retained EU Law classification, even their intentions are to comply, the danger of accidental divergence is evident.

And finally, the entire shift on the matter speaks to the continuing uncertainty about what relationship with the EU the UK might want.

Almost from the off after the referendum, there was a recognition that something would have to be done about all of the internalised and semi-internalised legislation (and practice) that came from the EU. Not just the regulations and the directives, but also the principles of supremacy and direct effect and the extensive case law of the CJEU.

Given the unclear boundaries of all of this, the only viable option at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiations was the one taken by the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2018, which just rolled over the membership-era system created by the European Communities Act 1972 and let the government take its time over resolving matters.

As I’ve been showing in my REUL Tracker (last discussion here and data files here), there has been some work to review and adapt to life after membership, but at a rather slow pace. Perhaps as a mark of that slow pace, the fancy visualisation tool first published in September last year has just undergone a big reworking, making it now very hard to keep track of what’s happened [one for next week I think].

However, the EU(WA) Act approach clearly caused issues for some in government, hence the flip over to the new Bill.

This drops methodically working through the pile to saying that anything not explicitly addressed by the end of 2023 will be sunsetted (sunsat?), even as any general principle of EU law is also removed from the practice of law in the UK.

The issues with this approach are both multiple and major, as set out in the graphic below.  Even if liberal use of the ‘exceptional’ extension to 23 June 2026 (not an insignificant date) would still likely result in a large percentage of Retained EU Law being dropped without the level of scrutiny one might hope for (assuming that the civil servants and MPs involved might also have other things that need their attention).

The Bill’s approach speaks to a desire to divest the UK of any vestige of having been an EU member, regardless of whether any part of it might have intrinsic value: a measure’s EU origin is enough to make the presumption that it must be removed.

This is of course a worldview that resonates with the notion of ‘taking back control’ and of British otherness; only we can know what is right for us, only we can make decisions for us. As political sells go, it’s not the hardest banner to run on, at least in a campaigning mode.

But politics is also about governing: our shiny ideas quickly tarnish in the glare of day as we start to use them.

And so it is here. The Bill might make good headlines, but it doesn’t obviously make things better for citizens, for traders or for relations with the European Union that (annoyingly) continues to sit on the UK’s doorstep. As I touched upon the other week, we don’t get to make unilateral decisions about our relationships, however much we’d like that.

At a moment when the government seems (maybe, perhaps) to be working towards some kind of deal with the EU on Northern Ireland, it would be ironic if it simultaneously opened up a new point of tension over an issue that only it seems to think is an issue.



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What do we talk about when we talk about negotiating a UK-EU relationship?

As you might have noticed, I have recently become a Senior Fellow of the ESRC-funded UK in a Changing Europe initiative, working on UK-EU relations. For present purposes, it mainly means I carry on doing this work, but now with more access to resources, and with a plan.

That plan is basically to try and make sense of relations, which feels like a bit more of a challenge now I’m actually getting into it. As such, it’s forced me to think more systematically about how to tackle this.

A key part of that is trying to unpack the various things we talk about when looking at this subject. So consider this a first stab.


Long-time readers of this (and other) blogs will know that I have always placed a lot of attention on the question of objectives in the relationship.

In the simplest terms, what are we trying to do here?

Simple and obvious as that might sound, it’s very rare to hear this voiced by participants in the debate, beyond some boilerplate stuff about wanting ‘good’ or ‘constructive’ relations. Those things are nice, but hardly a well-developed conceptualisation of anything.

What do you need those good and constructive relations for? How do they fit into your wider foreign relations? How do they fit with your idea of what you want to achieve domestically?

These are the big questions that need to asked to get towards a better sense of any of the rest of what follows.


More common is discussion of how we build and run a relationship.

This starts by focusing on the types of instruments being used – UK-EU treaties; UK bilateral treaties with member states; MOUs; informal venues, etc. – each of which has its own range of options and flexibilities.

There’s also a process issue relating to who decides about the relationship. How much do you involve different political and social actors in this? Are you consulting widely, or trying to keep things tight?

These things all matter, both because of the future implications they carry (on flexibility, on the extent and nature of obligations) and because of the contemporary political values they contain (on legitimacy, on the seriousness of intent).


This is the one we almost always discuss: what’s in the deal?

As I’ve already suggested, this kind of thing should really be driven by higher-order considerations about objectives, but in practice a lot comes down to specifics. Especially if you have a thing you think is important.

Scope clearly is consequential, also because a wider scope also tends to mean more people are affected/involved, which also has process implications.

Principles and Norms

This last category is slightly different in that it captures a number of ideas that inform the rest of the elements discussed here. Three examples might make this a bit clearer.

First up is the notion of good faith. Yes, it’s a principle of international treaty law, but it’s also good politics to be seen as (and actually to be) straight up, doing what you say you will. This speaks to trust, albeit in a more focused and applied manner.

Second we have the value placed on resilience and durability of agreements. As much as we have seen plenty of expediency in post-referendum British policy, there has also been an underlying effort to build some that will last. If nothing else, it hopefully means not having to spend so much time on things down the line.

And thirdly there is a notion that precedent-setting is important. This is more on the EU side, who don’t want to open the door to other third states popping up to demand the same treatment as the UK, but you also find in London, where particularities in dealings with the EU aren’t simple either (part of why CJEU powers are contentious).

Each of these suffuse the rest, even as they matter in their own right and deserve our attention.

Putting that together again

As I say, this is a first effort to systematise my thinking on this, but the main takeaway for now is that if we want to reach any equilibrium – high or low – in UK-EU relations, then we are going to have to make sure that we take proper account of all four parts of this, or risk falling another cycle making-it-up-as-we-go.

Which would be nice.

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Why ‘just rejoining’ isn’t a simple option

Yesterday I found myself on the brink of an interesting discussion about Brexit. Which possibly says something about me, as much as it does about the subject.

We’d started talking about public opinion and the emergence of what looks like a more robust move towards thinking that EU membership is a good thing. John Curtis has an excellent overview while even Matt Goodwin’s new polling on the effect of reminding people about the costs of membership still producing a plurality in favour (even if his point that things aren’t that solid is fair enough).

As I’m not a public opinion person – and know that well enough not to pretend I am – it was the next step of the discussion that was where I was pulled in.

Here, the discussion was about the lack of supply of party political options for people with this view on membership: there isn’t a national party pressing for it, despite the apparent appetite among voters.

Again, there are internal and external party political reasons for why this is, which aren’t my interest right now.

What is is unpacking some of the more mechanical aspects of why the UK rejoining the EU isn’t simply a matter of ‘just undoing the past few years’.

The legal bits

First up, we have to revisit the EU’s own treaties.

The reason is that this is the basic text that regulates membership, so any policy is going to have to work to this.

You’ll recall Article 50 – mainly because we all went on about it for four years after the referendum – which deals with leaving the organisation. You’ll be shocked to discover that Article 49 covers the joining bit.

And it’s the only mechanism for joining if you’re a sovereign state, so no avoiding it.

Article 49 puts in place various steps: approval by the Commission that you are in the right ballpark to join; extensive negotiations to check your political and economic systems comply with EU rules; agreement by all current member states and the European Parliament before you actually join.

Nothing about shortcuts for rejoiners, note.

As the Ukrainian case has shown, even with massive good will and pressing exigencies, the accession process isn’t fast for anyone because the legal obligations on the EU institutions are very substantial (admittedly by their own choice, but still a choice they are now bound to).

So any ‘rejoining’ by the UK would be legally just ‘joining’.

The political bits

Absent any legal shortcut, the UK would face a full accession process. For reference, Finland holds the record for the speediest process, with 34 months between applying and becoming a member state.

Finland is a useful counterpoint in this case, because – like the UK – a lot of its regulatory system and economic structures were already well-aligned with the EU’s. The EU demands as much adaptation to its norms before joining as possible, mainly because that’s when it has the most leverage. The UK has diverged to some extent, but not that much.

So in those terms, it’s not such a stretch, and certainly a stretch that will likely only increase with time, given the nature of regulatory drift.

But the politics is much more of an issue.

Finland was at the time coming out of its Cold War neutrality and engaging in a significant shift of state policy that had a broad consensus underpinning it in both public opinion and party politics (not complete certainly, but durable). There was minimal doubt about its good faith, as typified by its engagement in the years of negotiating the European Economic Area (EEA) before it switched up to seeking full membership. Remember that the EEA extends most of the EU’s single market and so contains much of the core activity of the EU.

The UK is not Finland, and will not be Finland even if a political party were to support rejoining and won office.

The experience of the period since 2016 – and, arguably, the period of awkward membership before then – has raised many EU concerns about what the UK wants of the organisation. Even with a broadly sympathetic government in office, relations could be tricky, and broadly sympathetic governments were rarely in office.

From the EU’s perspective, it will not be the regulatory side of things that is the sticking point, but the politics.

Most bluntly, what is the guarantee that a newly rejoining UK won’t go around the whole cycle again and leave once more? It’s evident that the EU still provokes much interest/attention/anger in the public and the political debates, so even if much of the steam has blown off, the demonstration of where this can all lead gives much pause for thought.

And all of this is before we enter into discussions about how a rejoining UK wouldn’t get the same opt-outs it used to have, or about how the budget is financed without the old rebate system. Or about how far a pro-membership British government is prepared to defend its policy.

So, not now

If this sounds very downbeat, then it’s also not to say that rejoining is impossible. As the past year has shown us, it is clear that Europe is in a time of flux and judgements can (and will) shift as events unfold.

But for a British government to start to treat rejoining as a proposition it seriously wishes to pursue, it will also have to put a long of work into addressing the gap in trust with the EU and into building a national consensus that this is a desirable and advantageous policy. Each of these two arms needs the other to work.

And as long as political parties in this country struggle to talk about European integration and how it relates to the UK’s ambitions that will not happen.

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The t-shirt guide to UK-EU relations

It’s often helpful to try and tackle familiar problems from unfamiliar angles: it makes you think again about what’s what and maybe it opens up some new ideas.

And so I present my t-shirt.

[yes, that is a finely-tuned physique it contains, but let’s leave that for another time]

A night’s sleep disturbed by the seeming lack of understanding about the basic choices the UK faces when it comes to economic relations with the EU had got me to some wild thoughts about another graphic. Possibly involving graceful curves. Which isn’t me.

Then I pulled out this top and a much simpler way of trying to work through the issue presented itself.

The t-shirt is – of course – not just a t-shirt. It’s an example of how modern economies work.

Beyond its material existence as a piece of clothing, it also comes out of a system of production that has to comply with numerous bits of regulation: standards on health and safety; approvals for the chemicals used in dyes; intellectual property rights for designers; obligations on truthful marketing; rules-of-origin for raw materials; and much more.

It’s also (and this was the clincher) a fine piece of British manufacturing. Lovely people, Restrap: totally recommend all their kit.

Like UK-EU relations how?

Using the t-shirt we can start to make perhaps more sense of options than would be the case with dry economic theory.

Let’s start with a baseline case: someone in another country that the UK doesn’t have any trade deals with hears about this t-shirt and wants to buy one.

Apart from having to sort out payment and shipping, the customer in our imagined country might encounter a number of additional barriers before they can pull it on.

The most basic of these would be either a limit on the number of t-shirts that can be imported each year from the UK (a quota) or a charge applied to each t-shirt being imported from the UK (a tariff). These are both classic ways of protecting domestic producers.

You can deal with these kinds of barriers with a free-trade agreement (FTA). Usually these involve reducing quotas and/or tariffs, but in the case of the FTA that the UK signed with the EU – the Trade & Cooperation Agreement – they went for zero quotas and zero tariffs, largely because these didn’t exist beforehand to be removed.

Great stuff, but not actually ‘free trade’.

Remember all those rules I mentioned beforehand? Well those are still in place, so our customer in country X might find the importer who’s bringing in the t-shirt has to satisfy national authorities of compliance with those various regulations and standards.

One big thing you can address is the question of where something comes from.

In our case, country X authorities might be concerned that even if the UK rules on producing t-shirts mean they’re not a competitive threat to domestic producers, maybe a UK firm is just acting as a conduit for much cheaper producers elsewhere, taking advantage of the UK’s low tariffs with them.

Similar, the t-shirt might be made in Yorkshire, but the raw materials will come from elsewhere, cotton not being a big crop in God’s Own Country. But because enough work has been done on those materials inside the UK, per UK rules (which reflect international norms), it’s now a UK-made product. More complicated items, like bicycles, are more complicated, but the same idea applies.

You can start to solve both these kinds of problems with a customs union.

All parties in such a union agree to have the same tariffs in place with third countries, so that you don’t get the direct problem of diverting trade through the low-tariff state or the indirect one of bypassing tariffs by doing work on things to make them ‘locally made’. Now, wherever goods enter the customs union, they get the same treatment, which means it’s no longer something that needs to be checked at internal borders. Indeed, you don’t need internal tariffs at all.

All good stuff, but there’s still a lot left on that original list. What if country X requires all text on items to be provided in the local language? Then the producer now has to either make a new version or supply some translation: neither’s a big deal in this case, but it’s still extra cost to do and if it needs to be signed off, that’s still paperwork.

So the big step to address these barriers is to have a common or single market.

As the name suggests, you’re trying to make something that’s more like the conditions you’d expect to find within a country. I hadn’t have any additional checks or controls when I bought this Yorkshire item from Surrey, so why do the same with country X?

In principle, you can do this – it’s more or less what you have in the EU, for example. But it’s very much bigger thing than an FTA or a customs union.

That’s because it can involve an awfully large number of things.

Importantly, it’s not simply about removing differences in rules on producing and moving goods (which itself includes manufacturing, transportation protocols, workers’ rights, environmental protection and more).

It’s also about removing differences on offering services (e.g. accessing the help service should I need guidance on, um, making my t-shirt work), moving capital (e.g. being able to have transaction-cost free purchase options in other countries) and allowing workers to move too (e.g. to make it possible to hire the finest t-shirt makers from across the area without restrictions).

Suddenly, the simple idea turns out to be really quite involved, especially because you can’t just do these things for t-shirts: you do them for the entire economy.

And there we go

This last point is the key one.

A lot of what we talk about when we look at UK-EU relations is specific cases: visas for musicians, rules on fish, proper cheese from France.

But in many – maybe most – cases, the principles involved are ones that tend to imply much bigger and more generalised processes.

Certainly, in each of these situations – no specific deal, an FTA, customs union, a single market – there is a degree of wiggle room. The EU’s single market has various gaps in it, for example, just as the UK has mixed in a very high level of integration with the EU for Northern Ireland alongside its otherwise very minimal FTA.

However, wiggle room is not the same as the fundamental differences that come with each basic option.

The more you work together to remove barriers to trade, the more you limit yourself in what you can do with third countries and what you can do domestically.

A customs union is not just an agreement on common external tariffs; it’s also an obligation to negotiate as part of that union in tariff discussions with other states.

A single market is not just a means to get full and free access to your partners’ markets; it’s also a permanent negotiation about addressing emerging barriers and a significant intrusion of your partners into making decisions about what happens in your country.

The t-shirt dilemma

Which brings us back to the t-shirt.

Economic integration is also political integration. None of the steps to ‘improve trade’ outlined above comes without some political implication domestically.

That’s always been the case, both in the abstract and in the particular case of the UK and the EU. And it would be foolish to pretend otherwise.

Too often, we have seen either a framing that is solely economic or solely political, without really trying to put them together. It’s not that ‘X% hit to GDP’ or ‘taking back control’ is wrong, just that neither is the full picture.

And so it is with our t-shirt, which by this point is starting to wonder if some other piece of clothing might not have been pulled out of the chest of drawers.

The t-shirt is both an item of clothing, to be traded as a product, and a representation of UK domestic producers, generating local value and competing in a globalised market.

The more we can recognise those different aspects and the need to take a considered view of how they might best be balanced, the better we will be able to make the big choices about what basic model of economic relations with the EU best serves our collective needs.

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Talking better about Brexit

Last week, Anton Spisak at the Tony Blair Institute produced an excellent paper on how the UK-EU relationship might be fixed. I heartily recommend it to you as an overview of where we are and what might be the way forward.

Of course, being a practical-minded sort, I did have some queries, as set out in this thread:

Central to my response was a question mark about how to get going the serious debate on what relations should look like. Politicians appear to either not know about the necessary details and trade-offs or not want to spend valuable political capital on a topic that is – frankly – a turn-off for most voters.

It’s no coincidence that ‘get Brexit done’ has been the most successful gambit since 2016: it’s an expression of frustration/disgust at [waves hand expansively] all this. It’s also not really a policy with any substance behind it.

This week has only underlined the point further. Labour’s big constitutional policy paper didn’t mention how relations with the EU (which include the Northern Ireland Protocol’s extensive entanglement and differentiation) might affect matters, while Kier Starmer himself tried to park whether he would rejoin the Single Market, to little avail.

This really just demonstrates the point that Westminster currently looks like a place where there might be serious discussion of what the 2016 referendum result means in terms of the kind of society the UK should try to be or of its place in the world.

Instead, it looks as if the next government will be just as prone as the current one to treat EU matters in a reactive fashion, fighting fires as they appear.

So what to do?

In other European states, such profound debates have typically ensued in the wake of major national trauma or change: the end of the second World War, the collapse of Communist regimes, etc.

That’s not really a sensible option for the UK: even if you wanted to raise the referendum itself to that level, the fact that it was precisely on this issue makes it very hard to use it in that way. Plus, if we haven’t used that moment during the past 6.5 years, why would we rake it over again now?

An alternative would be to wait until barely anyone cared/noticed, and then change policy either to address obvious problems or to match someone’s interests. That might be a technocratic agenda or it might be a deeply political one, but in the absence of quite so much heat in public debate the temptation to sit things out now is clear.

The problem here is that the issue is unlikely to ever dip off the political radar: witness the concern of leavers about precisely this kind of approach being taken by their opponents. Even Starmer’s rebuffing of the Single Market ‘right now’ was taken by some as a clear signal of an agenda trundling down the line.

In addition, even tinkering to fix the problem would probably not resolve matters, given both the extent of ties and their dynamic nature. Even small steps might have big effects, which could reignite politicisation and undermine confidence in the policy.

Which leaves the option of recasting and recontextualising Brexit into something bigger.

As much as Brexit was about being in or out of the EU, it was also evidently a moment for articulating a lot of other discontents and disillusionments within the British polity.

The long-term drift towards more managerial modes of government have also meant that big-picture strategies for the country have been in short supply, especially ones that establish a strong and compelling narrative about what the country embodies and how it can head there.

Put like this, relations of any kind with the EU – or any other part of the world – become functions of self-image and of actualisation: foreign policy becomes an articulation of values and interests where how we do things is informed clearly by what we are trying to achieve.

Precisely because such a strategy/narrative is all-encompassing, it side-steps the problem of voters (and politicians) not wanting to get into the Brexit thing again.

Likewise, it helps with any fire-fighting because it identifies strategic objectives that can guide responses and inform actions. Yes, things will still come up, but now within a framework that goes beyond ‘make it go away’.

The problem is obvious: who’s going to produce such a strategy?

Logically political parties are central to this, but partisan approaches also tend to be less durable, for all the reasons you might imagine.

Organic, bottom-up deliberation and pressure would be much more lasting and consensual, but incredibly hard to make happen in any organised way (by its nature).

But these barriers should not stop us from trying.

If we have learnt anything from recent politics, then it is that apathy and lethargy in political debates leaves the ground to whoever wants to fill the space. And often those that do are not the most representative of social or political interests, coming as they do from the more extreme parts of the spectrum.

In a week where even a country like Germany – which has hardly experienced the tumult of politics found in other states – can be the subject of a serious coup plot, we have to remember that democracy is founded on participation and engagement.

For citizens, that means being active in political choices and being thoughtful about who represents you. For media, that means facilitating robust public debate. For academics, that means providing evidence-led and impartial contributions from our work.

If the path forward on Brexit isn’t yet clear, then that should not stop all of us working to find ways to address the matter together. Otherwise someone else might do it for us.

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