The EU and UK have a Northern Ireland deal — so what’s in it?
The key concessions and single market safeguards in the newly-unveiled Windsor framework.
LONDON — After four months of intense talks (and plenty of squabbling before that), the EU and U.K. have a deal to resolve their long-running post-Brexit trade row over Northern Ireland.
But as U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak works to sell the so-called “Windsor framework” on the Northern Ireland protocol to Brexiteers and unionists, lawmakers on both sides of the English Channel and of the Irish Sea are getting to grips with the details.
From paperwork to plants, let POLITICO walk you through the new agreement, asking: Who has given ground, and how exactly will the deal thrashed out by EU and U.K. negotiators aim to keep the bloc’s prized single market secure?
Customs paperwork and checks
For businesses taking part in an expanded “trusted trader scheme,” the Windsor framework aims to considerably cut customs paperwork and checks on goods moving from Great Britain but destined to stay in Northern Ireland.
These goods will pass through a “green lane” requiring minimal paperwork and be labeled “Not for EU,” while those heading for the EU single market in the Republic of Ireland will undergo full EU customs checks in Northern Ireland’s ports under a “red lane.”
Traders in the green lane will only need to complete a single, digitized certificate per truck movement, rather than multiple forms per load.
Sunak has already claimed that this means “any sense of a border in the Irish Sea” — deeply controversial among Northern Ireland’s unionist politicians — has now been “removed.”
However, it’s by no means a total end to Irish Sea red tape. An EU official said that although the deal delivers a “dramatic reduction” in the number of physical food safety checks, for example, there will still be some — those seen as “essential” to avoid the risk of goods entering the single market.
These checks will be based on risk assessments and intelligence, and aimed at preventing smuggling and criminality.
U.K. public health and safety standards will meanwhile apply to all retail food and drink within the U.K. internal market. British rules on public health, marketing, organics, labeling, genetic modification, and drinks such as wines, spirits and mineral waters will apply in Northern Ireland. This will remove more than 60 EU food and drink rules in the original protocol, which were detailed in more than 1,000 pages of legislation.
Supermarkets, wholesalers, hospitality and food producers are likely to welcome the new arrangements. Many had stopped supplying to Northern Ireland because the cost of filling out hundreds of certificates for each consignment was deemed too high for a market as small as Northern Ireland.
Export declarations have been removed for the vast majority of goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain.
The EU’s safeguards: While offering to drastically reduce the volume of checks carried out, the EU has toughened its criteria to become a trusted trader under the expanded scheme. The EU will now have access to databases tracking shipments of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in real time. The system was tested through the winter, helping build trust in Brussels, and is being fed with data from traders and U.K. authorities. The European Commission will be able to suspend part or all of these trade easements if the U.K. fails to comply with the new rules.
The timeline: The U.K. government said it will consult with businesses in the “coming months” before implementing the new rules. The green lane will come into force this fall. Labels for meat, meat products and minimally-processed dairy products such as fresh milk will come into force from October 1, 2024. All relevant products will be marked by July 1, 2025. “Shelf-stable” products like bread and pasta will not be labeled.
A key plank of the deal is the bid to address complaints by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) — currently boycotting the power-sharing assembly in the region in opposition to the protocol — that lawmakers there did not have a say in the imposition of new EU rules in the region.
Under the terms of the new agreement, the Commission will have to give the U.K. government notice of future EU regulations intended to apply in Northern Ireland. According to Sunak, Stormont will be given a new power to “pull an emergency brake on changes to EU goods rules” based on “cross-community consent.”
Under this mechanism, the U.K. government will be able to suspend the application in Northern Ireland of an incoming piece of EU law at the request of at least 30 members of the assembly — a third of them. But if unionist parties in Northern Ireland want to trigger the new “Stormont brake,” they must first return to the power-sharing institutions which they abandoned last May. The EU and the U.K. could subsequently agree to apply such a rule in a meeting of the Joint Committee, which oversees the protocol.
Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said this new tool remains an emergency mechanism that hopefully will not need to be used. A second EU official said it would be triggered “under the most exceptional circumstances and as a matter of last resort in a well-defined process” set out in a unilateral declaration by the U.K. These include that the rules have a “significant and lasting impact on the everyday lives” of people in the region.
If the EU disagrees with the U.K.’s trigger of the Stormont brake, the two would resolve the issue through independent arbitration, instead of involving the Court of Justice of the EU.
Meanwhile, Northern Ireland’s courts will consider disputes over the application of EU rules in the region, and judges could decide whether to consult the CJEU on how to interpret them. In a key concession, the Commission has agreed not to unilaterally refer a case to the CJEU, although it retains the power to do so.
The EU’s safeguards: The CJEU will remain the “sole and ultimate arbiter of EU law” and will have the “final say” on EU single market disputes, von der Leyen stressed. Whether Brexiteers and the DUP are willing to accept that remains the million-dollar question.
Tax, state aid and EU rules
The U.K. government will now be able to set rules in areas such as VAT and state aid that will also apply in Northern Ireland — two major wins for Sunak that were rejected by the Commission in previous rounds of negotiations with other U.K. prime ministers.
It will, Sunak was at pains to point out Monday, allow Westminster to pass on a cut in alcohol duty that previously passed Northern Ireland by.
But London has had to give up on its idea of establishing a dual-regulatory mechanism that would have allowed Northern Ireland businesses to choose whether they would follow EU or British rules when manufacturing goods, depending on whether they intended to sell them in the EU single market or in the U.K. The whole idea was deemed by Brussels as impossible to police.
The EU’s safeguards: Northern Irish businesses producing goods for the U.K. internal market will only have to follow “less than 3 percent” of EU single market rules, a U.K. official said. But the nature of these regulations remains unclear, and there will be increased market surveillance and enforcement by U.K. authorities to try and reassure the EU.
The timeline: The U.K. government will be able to exercise these powers as soon as the Windsor framework comes into force.
The EU and the U.K. have agreed to scrap customs processes for parcels being sent between consumers in Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
The EU’s safeguards: Parcels sent between businesses will now move through the new green lane, as is the case for other goods destined to stay in Northern Ireland. That should allow them to be monitored, but remove the need to undergo international customs procedures. Parcel operators will share commercial data with the U.K.’s tax authority, HMRC, in a bid to reduce risks to the EU single market.
Timeline: These new arrangements will take effect September 2024.
Residents in Great Britain will be able to take their dogs, cats and ferrets to Northern Ireland without having to fulfill a requirement for a rabies vaccine, tapeworm treatment and other checks.
Pets traveling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and back will not be required to have any documentation, declarations, checks or health treatments.
The EU’s safeguards: Microchipped pets will be able to travel with a life-long pet travel document issued for free by the U.K.’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Pet owners will tick a box in their travel booking acknowledging they accept the scheme rules and will not move their pet into the EU.
The timeline: The new rules will take effect fall 2023.
Drugs approved for use by the U.K.’s medicines regulator, the MHRA, will be automatically available in every pharmacy and hospital in Northern Ireland, “at the same time and under the same conditions” as in the U.K., von der Leyen said.
Businesses will need to secure approval for a U.K.-wide license from the MHRA to supply medicines to Northern Ireland, rather than having to go through the European Medicines Agency. The agreement removes any EU Falsified Medicines Directive packaging, labeling and barcode requirements for medicines. This means manufacturers will be able to produce a single medicines pack design for the whole of the U.K., including Northern Ireland.
Drugs being shipped into Northern Ireland from Great Britain will be freed of customs paperwork, checks and duties, with traders only being required to provide ordinary commercial information.
The EU’s safeguards: Medicines traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will do so via the new green lane, which will have monitoring to protect the single market built in.
The timeline: The U.K. government said it will engage with the medicines industry soon on these changes.
The deal lifts the protocol’s ban on seed potatoes entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and its prohibition on trees and shrubs deemed of “high risk” for the EU single market. This will enable garden centers and other businesses in Northern Ireland to sell 11 native species to Great Britain and some from other regions.
The Windsor framework also removes sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on all these plants, and ditches red tape on their shipment into Northern Ireland.
The EU’s safeguards: Supplying businesses will have to obtain a Northern Ireland plant health label, which will be the same as the plant passport already required within Great Britain, but with the addition of the words “for use in the U.K. only” and a QR code linking to the rules.
The timeline: The new scheme and the lifting of the bans will all come into force in the fall.