After years of turmoil over the terms of the withdrawal agreement that included erecting a customs border down the Irish sea, the United Kingdom has reached a new chapter in our relationship with the European Union. Going into the negotiations Rishi Sunak promised to uphold Northern Ireland’s place in the UK, to protect frictionless East-West trade and safeguard the sovereignty of its democratic institutions.
With a motion scheduled on Wednesday to approve the agreement many will be asking if the Prime Minister has stood fast and met his own test or whether his red lines have turned noticeably pink.
Northern Ireland Protocol vs Windsor Framework
Under the previous arrangement that was agreed in Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement, goods that crossed over from Great Britain into Northern Ireland were treated as if they were crossing an international border. Since Northern Ireland has left the EU’s customs union but remained inside its single market for goods. In practice this meant that it still applied many regulatory and customs rules of the EU, and its laws on VAT in order to prevent a hard border in the island of Ireland.
In place of the arrangements agreed in 2019, the Windsor framework streamlines the process of moving goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain by introducing a dual system. It includes a green lane for goods moving internally within the UK (this is available for businesses that have registered for a trusted trader scheme with the UK government) and a red lane for goods at risk of entering the EU.
Goods marked on the green lane will not be treated like imports entering the EU from a third country. Individual food products arriving from Great Britain for example will no longer require officially signed certificates (general certificates for mixed loads of agri-food goods are still required) and no longer will consumer parcels require customs declarations, according to the documentation published by the UK government. Chilled meats which were banned from being sold in Northern Ireland under the Withdrawal agreement are now available for entry, as the EU has agreed to accept UK public health standards (the amount of additives in food for example) for goods which remain inside the UK’s internal market.
Other changes to the agreement include lifting the ban seeded potatoes (which will now require labelling from an authorised operator and be subject to inspections), some species of trees native to Britain and medicines which will now be authorised for use in Northern Ireland once approved by a UK regulator.
Rules governing the movement of pets have also been relaxed. Under the previous agreement pets required health certificates and up to date vaccinations, whereas now all they require is to be microchipped and a guarantee that they will not move into EU territory. Lastly, the UK will also set its own rules on VAT for alcohol or ‘immovable goods’ such as heat pumps. EU VAT rates on other goods entering Northern Ireland will apply as usual.
Checks still in place
In order to protect the integrity of the EU’s single market this new arrangement still requires a level of bureaucracy. The EU itself described these new arrangements as an “unprecedented reduction, although not a full eradication” of customs requirements, in its own public briefings on the agreement. On food products alone, the UK has to set up SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) inspection facilities and provide the EU with access to databases as part of a data sharing arrangement. Food not destined for the EU also has to be appropriately labelled and will still incur checks around 5 percent of the time.
As a partial member of the single market, Northern Ireland has unprecedented access to export goods into Europe but this comes at the cost that it must adopt a certain amount of EU regulations to prevent checks at the border with the Republic of Ireland. Under the new arrangement, the Prime Minister claims to have negotiated an agreement that seeks to apply the minimum amount of EU laws necessary to prevent a hard border and as a result over 1,700 pages of EU rules and regulations have been misapplied.
This still leaves several more EU regulations (approximately 3 percent of EU rules) in place. In these areas in order to give Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) in Northern Ireland a say, the Windsor framework introduces a mechanism, the ‘Stormont break’ that allows Stormont to disapply EU rules deemed to have a “significant impact to everyday life”.
This can be triggered when 30 MLAs from two or more parties co-sign a petition, after which the UK government will consult with local parties in an effort to break the deadlock. If they are unable then the rule will be suspended automatically but this will only be considered as a last resort. It can also be reapplied if both the UK and the EU co-agree at a joint committee to overrule the Stormont break.
The Windsor agreement has received largely positive reception across the UK but with some decent, among hardline Brexit supporters. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, whose party has unanimously agreed to vote against the agreement, expressed concerns that the deal would involve continued trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. In their initial assessment the DUP suggested that the agreement needed to be changed.
Other unionist parties such as the UUP and TUV while not making a direct comment on the Windsor framework have previously suggested that they will not accept anything less than a complete overhaul of the Northern Ireland protocol. Something the agreement does not do, as the EU itself suggests “the solutions have been found within the framework of the Withdrawal Agreement, of which the Protocol is an integral part.”
Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance party have all cautiously welcomed the agreement. Former deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill suggested that the deal offers “huge economic opportunities” in giving Northern Ireland unique access to both EU and UK internal markets.
Elsewhere across the UK the deal has received mixed reception. Former Prime Minister Tony Blair hailed the agreement as “the most practical way forward”. He further stated that the Northern Ireland protocol was “... obviously going to be a problem” because leaving the EU always meant that there had to be a customs and regulatory border with the UK.
Boris Johnson said that he would find the agreement “very difficult to vote for” preferring instead to go back on the agreement he himself signed in 2019, and using domestic law to overrule parts of the Withdrawal agreement. Something that would be illegal under international law.