On Monday afternoon this week, Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic came to the European Parliament to brief MEPs on the outcome of the successful talks with the UK government on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement in Northern Ireland.
The Windsor Framework sound like the latest Robert Ludlum airport novel, but it marks a very significant point in restoring trust to the EU-UK relationship, trust which had been destroyed, in the minds of EU figures, by the behaviour of previous UK governments and elements within the governing party in Westminster.
This piece will not look at the substance of the agreement, but rather will consider some of the elements that have made it possible for a relationship of trust to be restored, so that concrete measures to improve the lives of the people of Northern Ireland could be put in place, and to see what lessons we can draw as Christians on how to live as Christ’s disciples.
One of the more prominent figures in the last seven years of this political saga has been self-styled Brexit hardman Steve Baker, the MP for Wycombe, and for a number of years the Chair of the European Research Group (ERG). Baker was one of the so-called Spartans, the 28 Spartans, who voted against Theresa May’s Brexit deal right to the end. He is also a committed Christian, who tries to live out his faith in everything he does.
His track record during the years following the 2016 election made him a figure of suspicion in EU circles. So, when he made a statement of contrition to an Irish radio station during the Conservative Party Conference in October 2022, when he was a Northern Ireland minister, people sat up and took notice.
He said, “I recognize in my own determination and struggle to get the U.K. out of the European Union that I caused a great deal of inconvenience and pain and difficulty. Some of our actions were not very respectful of Ireland’s legitimate interests. And I want to put that right.” He added, “I am sorry that relations between the United Kingdom and Ireland have been soured by the Brexit process.”
And recalling his time as ERG Chair, he noted, “I recognise that as the leader of the 28, if I can put it in those terms, who rejected Theresa May’s deal three times, that caused enormous amounts of anxiety. And I recognise also that businesses in Northern Ireland have faced a lot of cost and uncertainty through this process. These are things that I want to see put right.”
As believers, we can recognise his sincere repentance and desire to pursue the ministry of reconciliation, to which we are all called (2 Corinthians 5:18). More significantly, Baker’s earnestness and resolve to transform the relationship into one was trust was noticed and warmly welcomed by EU figures, particularly in Dublin.
One other element that has been widely recognised is the personal rapport between Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak. What are the factors that have helped this rapport to lead to such a positive result?
Rishi Sunak has acted in a way that is true to his character, one that stands in stark contrast with his two immediate predecessors. Sunak is serious, hard-working, and understated. He deals with the world as it is, facing up to difficulties honestly and keeps his word.
These are characteristics that we should seek to cultivate as disciples of Jesus. Matthew 5:37 tells us “let what you say be simply ‘Yes’ or ‘No’; anything more than this comes from evil”. Ephesians 4:25 tells us “having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour”.
So, what can we learn from this?
First, Jesus’ character transforms lives for the better, and can have a positive effect on culture and lead to hitherto unimagined breakthroughs. Many will have been strongly opposed to the policy positions taken by Steve Baker - and many will have supported them - but his honest apology showed the power of repentance and forgiveness to transform lives.
Secondly, character matters. Eschewing the popular to pursue the right is never easy, but Rishi Sunak has done this, and again this has brought a stunning breakthrough, in the face of scorn and opposition. As we are urged in Galatians 6:9, “let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.”
Thirdly, let us persevere in prayer for our leaders. Their responsibilities are heavy, but their authority is God-given. Romans 13:7 adjures us “to pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honour to whom honour is owed.” Glory alone belongs to God, and we bring God honour by praying for and respecting our leaders as they seek to act justly and bring reconciliation into a broken world.