After months of secret negotiations, Britain and the EU on Monday published the text of their new agreement to refine post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland.
Totaling more than 100 pages, the agreement – called the Windsor Framework – sets out ways to facilitate the functioning of the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which has soured EU-UK relations and destabilized the region’s politics.
While Northern Ireland continues to follow EU rules for trade in goods, the new implementing agreement sets out processes on trade, state subsidies and value added tax policy to reduce the impact of the trade border in the Irish Sea created by the original agreement.
While Northern Ireland remains subject to EU law in the areas where it applies in the region, the agreement addresses concerns in the mainly Protestant unionist community that the protocol has undermined the UK’s constitutional integrity.
The new framework aims to improve the functioning of the protocol in five key areas:
The Business of Commerce: Red-Green Clues
Goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will now be divided into two classes: those destined for Northern Ireland (green lane) and those bound for Ireland and the EU single market (red lane).
Companies that register with a trusted trade scheme and use the greenway will see “unprecedented reduction” in customs paperwork, the EU said. Goods in the red band will have to undergo customs, food and animal health checks.
For agri-food products, the most strictly controlled products, the EU will accept UK public health standards, which means fresh meat and other products will be able to enter Northern Ireland. They must carry “not for the EU” labels.
As labels are introduced by 2025, the proportion of shipments subject to identity checks will drop to 5%. The UK has agreed to share near real-time customs data with the EU so it can identify evidence of fraud and take corrective action if necessary.
UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the changes had “eliminated any sense of border on the Irish Sea”, while an EU official spoke of a “dramatic reduction in the number of checks”.
Orders for friends or family and online deliveries from Great Britain will not require customs paperwork, ending another significant source of aggravation for Northern Irish residents. Businesses using approved parcel carriers will experience simplified customs procedures.
Importers of some British-made steel grades into Northern Ireland have had to pay tariffs since last year when the EU changed its quota rules. The agreement also addresses this issue specifically for steel.
State aid and VAT
Under Article 10 of the Protocol, any UK subsidy decision that may affect Northern Ireland’s trade in goods must be referred to Brussels for approval. The UK saw this as unnecessary interference with its sovereignty.
While Article 10 remains in effect, the UK government has said “rigorous tests” will now be applied, effectively removing 98% of Northern Ireland grants from the risk of referral to Brussels. “This excludes all but the largest grants and those where companies have no material presence in Northern Ireland,” said the UK.
Another area of difference that angered British ministers was that Northern Ireland could not adopt changes to domestic VAT rates, something Sunak said was unacceptable when he was chancellor.
These will now be extended to Northern Ireland, including politically talismanic items: some alcohol tax cuts will now apply across the UK, including relief for beer in pubs.
However, except for immovable objects such as domestic solar panels, the UK cannot reduce the EU’s minimum VAT rates for now. The two sides agreed to draw up a list of products on which the UK can impose lower rates over the next five years.
Governance and consent: role of institutions in Northern Ireland
For Northern Ireland’s unionist community, the prospect that the region would automatically have to implement large amounts of new or updated EU laws in the future, as specified in the protocol, has been a source of tension.
The deal seeks to address this by delivering an “emergency brake” to Northern Ireland’s legislature in Stormont, which can be pulled in “exceptional circumstances” if 30 out of 90 members from at least two parties vote to block adoption of the Single Commonwealth Agreement. EU updated. market rules.
Under this ‘Stormont brake’, rules that are subject to objection will not be applied until they have been discussed by Brussels and London. If Britain decides not to implement measures that the EU still deems necessary at the request of the Northern Ireland assembly, the bloc could take targeted “remedial measures”.
London has said it will legislate to ensure the Westminster government takes Stormont’s demands into account if and when it pulls the handbrake.
Experts said the circumstances under which it could be used were very definite. “This is progress, but the new system only applies when the brake is pulled,” said Catherine Barnard, professor of EU law at the University of Cambridge. “The rest of the time it’s normal.”
Feeling part of the Union
EU rules created a series of bureaucratic hurdles that unionists believed isolated them from the rest of the country.
Pets needed to be microchipped and obtain a passport to travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – the same rules needed to travel to the EU. Under the agreement, pets will only need a simple travel document.
Medicines approved for use in the UK can also be sold in the region, even if they have not yet been approved in the EU.
Finally, seed potatoes and plants banned from being imported because they can carry diseases can now move freely into Northern Ireland on the basis of a special phytosanitary label.
The constitutional dimension: the role of the Court of Justice
Leading Brexiters and unionists demanded an end to the European Court of Justice’s jurisdiction over Northern Ireland and the ECJ’s role as executor of the protocol.
The agreement does not achieve this; nor does it create a new dispute resolution mechanism involving international arbitration, as some leading Brexiters wanted.
The UK government has argued that the new ‘green runway’ trading system has significantly reduced the amount of EU law applied in Northern Ireland, meaning that 1,700 pages of EU law that applied in the original agreement will no longer apply. in the region.
The government added that only 3% of EU laws now apply in Northern Ireland. According to the command document: “The rules that apply exist only, and only as strictly necessary, in order to maintain the unique ability of Northern Irish companies to sell their products on the EU market.”