UK and EU strike a new post-Brexit deal: What are the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor Framework?


Britain’s prime minister Rishi Sunak must be a happy man. On Monday, three years after Brexit — when Britain left the European Union (EU) — the prime minister has taken a significant step towards that goal. Britain and the EU reached an agreement intended to resolve one of the thorniest legacies of Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc: the trade status of Northern Ireland.

Announcing the news, Sunak said, “The United Kingdom and the European Union may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, trading partners and friends. This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship.”

Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, present at the time of what is now being called the “new Windsor framework”, praised the deal as “a practical solution for people and for all communities in Northern Ireland. “This new framework will allow us to begin a new chapter,” she told reporters at the news conference.

But what exactly is the Northern Ireland protocol? Why is it so controversial? What is the new deal all about and how does it impact trade between the two blocs?

Ireland, Northern Ireland, Britain & the EU

To understand what the Northern Ireland protocol is and why Britain and EU have been debating over it, first we need to understand the history.

Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, but it shares an open land border with Ireland, a member of the EU — the bloc that the United Kingdom has left. When both were part of the EU, they shared the same rules and trade was relatively easy. However, when the United Kingdom walked out of the EU the need for checks was necessitated as the EU and UK have different product standards on certain goods — such as milk and eggs — which arrive from non-EU countries.

A road sign at a roundabout on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland with directions to Belfast and Dublin is seen in Carrickcarnan, Ireland. Reuters

However, the land border is a sensitive issue because of Northern Ireland’s troubled history with Ireland. There were apprehensions that introducing cameras or border posts as part of the checks on goods would lead to instability.

And hence, the Northern Ireland protocol was born, which decided the checks would be conducted between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The Northern Ireland Protocol

Taking into account the apprehensions, former Britain prime minister consented to the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU and it came into force on 1 January 2021.

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, the process of inspecting goods at the Irish border was replaced by conducting inspections and document checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which occur at ports in Northern Ireland. Additionally, Northern Ireland is required to continue adhering to EU product standards.

However, this deal wasn’t acceptable to many and created a lot of friction. Businesses complained the checks led to extra costs and delays. This has resulted in delays and sometimes sparse supermarket shelves as some suppliers decided to stop selling to Northern Ireland due to the new cost and difficulty.

A sign from Unionists Against Northern Ireland Protocol hangs from a lamp post close to Larne Port, Northern Ireland. AP

For some, the protocol was also a way for the EU to retain power over a part of the United Kingdom and to many of Northern Ireland’s pro-British unionists, it felt as if their identity was under threat.

The new Windsor Framework

After much discussion and debate, the EU and the UK finally agreed on the new Windsor Framework. This new post-Brexit trading deal has been designed to remove the need for checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The deal has now set the framework for movement of goods: there would be a green lane for goods that will remain in Northern Ireland. Products in this lane would no longer need checks and paperwork.

The constitution of the green lane, as per Sunak meant that “if food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, it will be available in Northern Ireland.”

For goods that need to be sent to the EU, a red lane has been constituted. Products in the red lane would still be subjected to checks.

Moreover, as the BBC reported ban on certain products, such as chilled sausages, entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, would be removed.

The Windsor Framework also has stated that Northern Ireland would no longer have to follow certain EU rules, including VAT payment and alcohol duties.

Besides this, the Windsor Framework introduces a “Stormont Brake” — a mechanism through which the Northern Ireland Assembly can object to new EU rules. What this means is that the Assembly has the power to reject new EU laws for goods that may be introduced if they believe it would have a significant and lasting effect on the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.

While it can’t be used for “trivial reasons”, once passed the rule would not be implemented.

Timing matters

Rishi Sunak said that the new agreement would make a difference “almost immediately”, but beyond that we do not know the exact timeframe of the changes or whether we will see some form of transition to the new arrangements.

Response to the Windsor Framework

The largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), said it would now assess whether the new arrangements meet its seven tests. The leader of the DUP Jeffrey Donaldson, according to a Reuters report, said that in broad terms it was clear that significant progress had been secured across a number of areas on the trade rules for Northern Ireland but that key issues of concern remain.

Meanwhile, vice president of the Sinn Fein party, Michelle O’Neill, described the deal as a “breakthrough”. “We are at a critical turning point. The economic possibilities this opens up must now be seized. The onus is on the DUP to end its boycott and now join the rest of us to make politics work,” she was quoted as saying to Euro News.

The deal also seemingly won the approval of Joe Biden, who called the agreement an “essential step to ensuring that the hard-earned peace and progress of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is preserved and strengthened”.

With inputs from agencies

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UK and EU strike a new post-Brexit deal: What are the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor Framework?
UK and EU strike a new post-Brexit deal: What are the Northern Ireland protocol and the Windsor Framework?
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