Northern Ireland Protocol becomes the Windsor Framework
By Sophie Wheale, Associate Director
Yesterday afternoon, the 27th February, both the UK’s Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced an Agreement in Principle on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Following months of negotiations over post-Brexit trading arrangements, led by EU Brexit Chief Negotiator Maros Šefčovič and British Foreign Secretary James Cleverly, finally both the UK and the EU have landed on deal.
What was the NI Protocol?
After the UK left the EU single market, special trading arrangements were required for Northern Ireland (NI), due to the unique circumstances of being both part of the UK and part of the land bloc of the island of Ireland.
A hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland has always been out of the question. The Protocol, therefore, enabled Northern Ireland to stay in the EU’s single market, on the condition that it abided by many of the bloc’s rules, including checks on goods crossing from the UK into Northern Ireland. In theory, it presented a solution that avoided a hard border, whilst preserving the integrity of the EU single market.
In practice, though, the Protocol created overwhelming regulatory burdens for transporting goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain for businesses, challenging the UK internal market and resulting in loss of access to critical goods, from food to parcels to medicines for NI consumers.
So what happened this week?
The EU and UK have this week reached a revised deal on these trading arrangements, published in a Command Paper known as the Windsor Framework. It aims to:
- Allow access of goods for NI consumers from Great Britain (GB), as part of the UK
- Allow for unfettered access for NI goods to GB markets
- Protect the integrity of the EU’s single market
- Enables Stormont to have democratic oversight in Northern Ireland, through the Stormont Brake
More widely, this framework marks a critical step in the EU-UK relationship, as decision-makers hope this sets the tone for more positive working relations and trading for the two neighbours.
At a close-up, the Windsor Framework ensures:
- There will be no customs paperwork to be required for deliveries into NI
- Legal text has been amended to ensure VAT on items such as alcohol duty will apply in Northern Ireland as in Britain
- Travel requirements for pets have been removed
- There has been a landmark settlement on medicines – drugs approved by UK’s drug regulator will automatically be available in hospitals and pharmacies in NI
- Over 1,700 pages of EU law – with accompanying European Court of Justice (ECJ) jurisdiction – will be disapplied, meaning that core UK trade is based on core UK internal market rules
- However, there will still be a role for EU law in Northern Ireland. Importantly however, the Stormont Brake allows for future rules in NI to be vetoed by Stormont, if viewed as inadequate
For the UK:
There is a welcoming of the deal from UK businesses moving goods into Northern Ireland, given the strong focus on removing red tape.
Firstly, the Framework has sought to expand the number of businesses classed as internal UK traders, in order to move goods as “not at risk” of entering the EU, allowing for a much smoother flow into NI.
In addition, there will be a straightforward process for goods movements, underpinned by the existing Trader Support Service (TSS), for those whose goods are destined to stay in NI. They will automatically be treated as internal UK movements for tariff purposes, with no rules of origin requirements; again helping remove burdensome red tape.
For British agri-food companies, there will be no need for official veterinarians or plant inspectors on site in supermarket distribution centres for products in NI. And, for the Healthcare and Life Sciences industries, many will welcome the news that the UK will be able to rejoin the Horizon programme, once the deal is fully secured.
For the EU:
EC President von der Leyen commented on the deal as the opening of a new chapter in the EU/UK relationship, allowing parties to “put forward definitive solutions that work for people and businesses in Northern Ireland and that protect our Single Market. It also allows us to turn the page towards a bilateral relationship that mirrors the one of close allies standing shoulder to shoulder in times of crisis.”
Simpler rules will benefit EU businesses and citizens. The agreement will also result in a pacified atmosphere between Britain, Ireland and the rest of the continent, a relationship that had been damaged under Sunak’s predecessors Truss and Johnson.
The Framework will be waiting to be approved at the next meeting of the UK-EU Joint Committee, to take place in March 2023. After this, the EU and UK will seek to take forward legislative measures to translate the solutions into law, creating the basis for these new arrangements to enter into force.
The Prime Minister will be hoping this agreement is sufficient to restore power-sharing in Northern Ireland, as to date, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) have refused to come back to the Executive, having rejected the Protocol. At the time of writing, the DUP has yet to give a full response, which may take a number of weeks. Senior leaders however are planning on meeting this Saturday, which will provide some hint towards their leaning at least.
Aside from the DUP, the Prime Minister will have been glad to see that for the moment, not a single Conservative MP has outwardly rejected the deal. A cautious optimism will be spreading through the Party that Brexit might actually be done this time.