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Keir Starmer says he wants a better Brexit trade deal

Politico | 8 July 2024

Keir Starmer says he wants a better Brexit trade deal

By Shawn Pogatchnik

BELFAST — Britain wants a better trade agreement with the European Union, new U.K. Prime Minister Keir Starmer told Northern Ireland’s politicians Monday.

Amid scenes of rare unity in the Stormont parliament, Starmer said he wanted to secure a better arrangement than “the botched deal Boris Johnson brought home,” from the tortuous negotiations run by the previous Conservative administration which accompanied Britain’s departure from the EU.

Making his first visit as prime minister to the center of Northern Ireland’s revived power-sharing government, Starmer said he understood how the succession of post-Brexit trade deals — starting with the original Northern Irish protocol contained within the 2020 U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement struck by Johnson — had upset the balance of interests in the volatile community of Northern Ireland.

To the fury of the north’s British unionist community, the protocol meant Northern Ireland became the only U.K. region still required to enforce EU goods laws. That policy kept cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland barrier-free at the expense of new EU-required restrictions on goods arriving from Britain.

The 2023 Windsor Framework and January 2024 Safeguarding the Union agreements produced by Starmer’s Conservative predecessor Rishi Sunak sought to reduce — but did not eliminate — those customs, regulatory and sanitary controls. The Democratic Unionist Party, which had spent two years sabotaging Stormont in protest at the protocol, finally relented in February, allowing a new Sinn Féin-led coalition to gain office.

After meeting power-sharing leaders and wider delegations from five major local parties, Starmer held out hope that the main reason for Northern Ireland’s peculiar treatment — the Conservatives’ determination to break away from EU goods standards in England, Scotland and Wales — could be reversed under Labour.

A better deal

That would mean, at least in part, a new SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) agreement ensuring the entire U.K. maintained common veterinary and plant health standards with the EU.

“We think we can get a better deal than the botched deal that Boris Johnson brought home. We will work on that,” Starmer told journalists in the Great Hall of Stormont’s parliamentary building.

But Starmer stressed that rebuilding relations with Brussels would require the U.K. government first to honor existing agreements on Northern Ireland border controls, not to break them as often happened under the Tories.

That means continued rollout of the Windsor deal, which cleared the way for proper border control posts at Northern Irish ports to be built and staffed, more than two years later than originally agreed.

“We do have to get on with implementing the important changes that are necessary under the existing arrangements,” he said. “We’re not going to be able to get a better relationship unless we demonstrate a commitment to the agreements that have already been put in place.”

Starmer, accompanied by new Northern Ireland Secretary Hilary Benn and his Chief of Staff Sue Gray, Stormont’s former permanent secretary for finance, won universal praise from across the political spectrum — a rare feat in Belfast.

Democratic Unionist Leader Gavin Robinson said he took heart from Downing Street’s newfound command of Northern Ireland issues and Starmer’s own stated commitment to its union with Britain. Robinson added that he personally likes Starmer.

Night and day

“Keir Starmer is a unionist. Keir Starmer is somebody who has indicated that a border poll is not on the horizon,” Robinson said, referring to Sinn Féin’s hope of holding a referendum on uniting Ireland into one all-island state.

The Irish nationalist side couldn’t conceal its sense of relief that Labour, the party which delivered Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace accord under Tony Blair a quarter-century ago, was back in charge.

“After 14 years of a grotesquely irresponsible, austerity-obsessed, right-wing nationalist, increasingly chaotic Tory government which inflicted so much instability on Northern Ireland, this was a huge break from that,” said Matthew O’Toole of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Labour’s official ally in Northern Ireland. It represents moderate Irish nationalists and competes for votes in predominantly Catholic areas with the much larger Sinn Féin.

The Irish republicans said they were glad to see Labour back in the British saddle, too. Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald compared talking to Starmer and Benn versus their Conservative predecessors as “like daylight and dark.”

After visiting Northern Ireland, the new PM is due to continue his tour of all four of the U.K.’s nations with visits to Wales later Monday and Scotland Tuesday.

 source: Politico