March 03, 2023

Brexit Update: EU and U.K. Unveil New “Windsor Framework” For Trade in Northern Ireland

This week, President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Rishi Sunak unveiled a new deal on the trading arrangements between the United Kingdom and European Union which — if put into place — will supplement the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP)

The NIP was agreed by the EU and the U.K. Government of Boris Johnson pre-Brexit and came into force on 1 January 2021. Under the NIP, new checks on goods were introduced into Northern Ireland. These checks, including customs document inspections and inspections of the goods themselves, took place at Northern Ireland’s ports rather than at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The agreement was a result of a complicated history on the island of Ireland and reflected the need for there to be no “hard border” (i.e., border checkpoints) between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. The EU also wanted to ensure that no products which did not meet their requirements could enter the EU Single Market via the Republic of Ireland, thus ensuring the “integrity” of the single market, while the U.K. wanted to facilitate unfettered access for goods to move between Northern Ireland and the island of Great Britain.

Many Unionist political parties (parties that support Northern Ireland being part of the U.K.) were unhappy with the NIP as they said that the checks introduced at Northern Irish ports created a border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (Great Britain includes England, Wales and Scotland). Additionally, many businesses that operated in the U.K. said that the checks which had to take place within the same country led to many extra costs and delays and the access to Northern Ireland was not “unfettered.”

It is worth noting that the lawfulness of the NIP was challenged by some Unionist leaders in the U.K.’s Supreme Court. At the beginning of February 2023, the Supreme Court (unanimously) ruled that the NIP did not breach the Act of Union 1800 or the Northern Ireland Act 1998 and was therefore lawful.

The So-Called “Windsor Framework”

This complicated puzzle has been debated for the past couple of years, and the Windsor Framework follows many months of negotiations between the U.K. and EU to try and square the circle.

The Windsor Framework includes (amongst other details):

  • New sanitary and phyto-sanitary solutions to ensure that the same food that is available in Northern Ireland as in Great Britain by introducing “green lanes” at Northern Irish ports where the products can move through with minimal paperwork and controls. Goods destined for the Republic of Ireland will go through “red lanes” for more stringent tests.
  • Parcels being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will no longer be subject to customs processes, and residents of Great Britain will also be able to bring their pets to Northern Ireland without needing to prove vaccinations.
  • There will be new trusted trader schemes where traders can benefit from dramatically simplified procedures and declarations and reduced data requirements.
  • Northern Irish citizens will have access to medicines at the same time as the rest of the U.K.
  • New VAT rules accompanied by safeguards for the EU.
  • A new governance scheme (called the Stormont Brake) where the Northern Ireland Assembly would have the power to ask the U.K. Government to stop the application of certain EU goods laws if they are not supported by both communities.

Next Steps for the Windsor Framework

Long-time followers of the saga of Brexit will know that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that the politics of Brexit and Northern Ireland is always potentially difficult. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak will now have to sell his deal to the communities in Northern Ireland as well as some particularly skeptical members of his Conservative Party. Perhaps unusually for U.K. politics, though, the main U.K. opposition parties support the deal.

For both the EU and U.K., the Windsor Framework is seen as a positive step to normalize the relationship between the two parties. The U.K. Government has already said it is going to withdraw the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, and the EU has said that if the Windsor Framework is implemented there would no longer be grounds for their existing legal proceedings against the U.K. regarding infringements of the NIP to proceed.

View from the United States

United States President Joe Biden welcomed the Windsor Framework as a way to strengthen and preserve the peace process in Northern Ireland and reiterated the U.S.’s support for the region. This may have a positive impact on the already strong economic ties between the U.S. and U.K., as well as the U.S. and EU. Although the Biden administration has put talk of a potential U.S./U.K. free trade agreement on hold for the time being, the Windsor Framework takes away one large roadblock from moving those discussions forward.

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