In addition to removing an obstacle to London-Brussels relations, the Northern Ireland trade deal could remove Brexit from the center of British politics after seven divisive years.
LONDON — On its face, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s newly announced agreement with the European Union on Northern Ireland is merely a trade deal that governs the transport of pets, sausages, seed potatoes, and the like from one part of the United Kingdom to another.
But at a stroke, Mr. Sunak has defused the primary source of tension between Britain and the European Union, a recurring irritant in the relationship between London and Washington, and one of the principal grievances of those who complain that Britain has failed to reap the benefits of its departure from Europe’s single market.
Behind the numbingly dense language of trade rules, this Brexiteer leader has gone a long way toward quieting the lingering ghosts of Brexit.
If Mr. Sunak manages to maneuver the agreement announced on Monday past the resistance of unionist leaders in Northern Ireland and the misgivings of hard-line Brexiteers in his Conservative Party, he will lay to rest one of the most vexing legacies of Britain’s exit from the European Union. And with it, he could remove Brexit as the fulcrum around which Britain’s politics pivot.
That’s not to say Brexit has gone away as an issue. Mr. Sunak still needs to formulate an immigration policy that will help ease Britain’s labor shortage, which Brexit worsened. And Britain has yet to articulate a post-Brexit role in the world. Its self-imposed exile has deprived it of a seat at the top table in charting Europe’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine, even though it is one of Ukraine’s most robust suppliers of weapons.
“The ghosts of Brexit will be haunting British politics for decades to come,” said Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London. “But it looks, at long last, as if they might have lost at least some of their power to scare politicians into avoiding anything that might be interpreted as compromise with the European Union, even when it’s so obviously in the national interest.”
“There will be some irreconcilables, of course,” Professor Bale continued. “But they risk ending up like the proverbial soldiers who are so deeply committed to the cause, and so deeply ensconced in some remote jungle somewhere, that they fail to realize that the war is finally over.”
Early indications are that the mutiny against the deal is smaller than the government once feared. Influential pro-Brexit figures have praised it, while even the Democratic Unionist Party, whose rejection of the agreement could torpedo it, has withheld judgment, pending closer scrutiny of the legal text. That is a victory for Mr. Sunak, suggesting that he may sidestep the debilitating Brexit feuds that crippled his predecessors.
It remains to be seen whether the agreement will clear the way for Northern Ireland to form a government after months of paralysis in Belfast. That will depend on whether the Democratic Unionists can be coaxed back into a power-sharing arrangement with the Irish nationalist party, Sinn Fein.
Some unionists expressed anger at what they said was the government’s improper use of King Charles III, who is supposed to be above politics, to sell the deal. It is called the Windsor Framework, which happens to be the king’s family name. It was sealed at a hotel in Windsor, west of London, where the king has a castle. And Charles welcomed one of the signatories, Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, for tea shortly after she and Mr. Sunak announced the deal.
Still, the generally positive reaction to the agreement, analysts said, is a tribute to Mr. Sunak’s negotiating skills. On the issues that matter to the Brexiteers, like the jurisdiction of European Union law over Northern Ireland, he extracted significant concessions from Brussels. Under the terms of the deal, the territory’s elected assembly will have a lever to reject the imposition of new E.U. laws.
Mr. Sunak was able to obtain such compromises, they said, because his counterparts in Brussels viewed him as a good-faith negotiator, who earnestly sought a deal to reset relations between London and Brussels.
That is a stark contrast to his predecessors, Liz Truss and Boris Johnson. Mr. Johnson is viewed with suspicion in many European capitals as the man who reneged on his own Northern Ireland trade deal with Brussels. As foreign secretary, Ms. Truss proposed legislation — which Mr. Sunak has now scrapped — that would unilaterally discard parts of that agreement.
“Sunak’s agreement significantly improves upon the deal Johnson did,” said Mujtaba Rahman, a former European Commission official who is now an analyst at the political risk consultancy, Eurasia Group. “He’s not instrumentalizing Northern Ireland in the way that Johnson and Truss did for their own domestic political purposes.”
Beyond the fine print in the deal, which covers issues like the customs paperwork needed to mail packages, Mr. Sunak also benefited from the passage of time. Nearly seven years after the referendum that set Brexit in motion, the country has grown weary of ceaseless debates about it.
Bickering over trade rules in Northern Ireland seemed less relevant at a time when Britain is grappling with soaring energy prices and the gravest economic crisis in a generation. London and Brussels need to collaborate on other challenges, like the war in Ukraine and the perilous flow of migrants across the English Channel in small boats.
“There is absolute Brexit fatigue across the system,” Mr. Rahman said. “People just want to move on.”
None of this means that Brexit won’t keep dogging Britain. The country continues to suffer a labor shortage, which economists attribute in part to the curtailment of free movement of people after Britain left the European Union in 2020. Other bureaucratic hurdles to Britain’s trade with the European Union remain, and they have aggravated the downturn that plagues the British economy.
To some extent, Mr. Sunak’s deal could increase the onus on his government to deliver on the purported promises of Brexit. By settling the dispute over Northern Ireland, the prime minister has removed Exhibit A for euroskeptics in London and aggrieved unionists in Belfast. It will be harder to avoid blaming Britain’s future weaknesses on Brexit itself, not simply poorly written trade rules.
For those reasons, analysts said they were leery that Mr. Sunak’s agreement would eliminate Brexit as a divisive issue. The Conservative Party remains ideologically suspicious of the European Union. Public opinion toward Brexit has swung sharply negative in recent months, as nearly 60 percent of people now say in opinion surveys that they believe the 2016 vote to leave the E.U. was a mistake.
A genuine resetting of relations with Brussels, some analysts contend, will require a change in power from the Conservatives to the Labour Party. British voters will get the opportunity to vote for that within two years; a general election must be held by January 2025. By breaking the impasse over Northern Ireland, Mr. Sunak hopes to remove at least one easy criticism for his opponents — and move on.
After clinching the deal with Ms. von der Leyen, Mr. Sunak hailed it as “the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship.” They both cited Ukraine as the kind of challenge on which Britain and the European Union could work together.
“There’s a range of different areas we can cooperate on,” he added.
Mr. Sunak deplored the recent shooting of an off-duty police officer in the Northern Irish town of Omagh, a distant echo of the bloodshed that plagued Northern Ireland during the period known as the Troubles. “Those trying to drag us back into the past will never succeed,” the prime minister vowed.
Whether he will successfully shake loose the ghosts of Brexit is another question.