UK, EU propose New Framework on Northern Ireland Border
| By Alexander Haidar |
On February 27, 2023 the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen announced a tentative post-Brexit trade agreement concerning Northern Ireland.[i] The existing Northern Ireland Protocol is an agreement which came into effect in January of 2021 as part of the Brexit negotiations between the European Union (EU) and the United Kingdom (UK) to address trade on the border between Northern Ireland (a part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member state). The Protocol sought to prevent the need for a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland by essentially keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods and maintaining regulatory alignment with EU rules.[ii] Since implemented, goods entering Northern Ireland’s ports from Great Britain (no longer part of the EU) became subject to checks and controls to ensure that they comply with EU standards. The Protocol also included provisions for the Northern Ireland Assembly to vote on whether to continue the arrangements after four years, with the possibility of extending them for another four years if both the EU and UK agree.[iii]
The Northern Ireland Protocol has been a source of controversy and tension between the UK and the EU, as some pro-unionist political parties such as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland felt that it created barriers to trading and undermined Northern Ireland’s position within the UK. There have also been difficulties in implementing the Protocol, with some businesses experiencing disruption and delays in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.[iv] Overall, the Northern Ireland Protocol was a complex and important agreement which marked a milestone of the Brexit process, however, it will likely be replaced by legislation based on the Windsor Framework. The deal outlined by the UK and the EU is the culmination of months of negotiations between both parties to find a new approach to post-Brexit international trade policy across the only UK-EU land border. During a joint press conference at Windsor castle, both leaders announced their hope that this new approach will result in an effective solution to the post-Brexit trade disputes in Northern Ireland:
“This new Framework will allow us to begin a new chapter. It provides for long-lasting solutions that both of us are confident will work for all people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”[v]
– EU President von der Leyen
“Today’s agreement is about preserving that delicate balance and charting a new way forward for the people of Northern Ireland.”[vi]
– UK Prime Minister Sunak
At the press conference, Sunak explained the three main achievements of the revised protocol as follows: “Delivering smooth flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom; Protecting Northern Ireland’s place in our Union; Safeguarding sovereignty for the people of Northern Ireland.”[vii] In this plan, goods traveling from the UK with a final destination of Northern Ireland will travel through a new “green lane,” while those with a final destination of Ireland (EU) will travel through a “red lane” where EU checks and regulations will be followed. It will also allow British residents of Northern Ireland to forgo the customs paperwork previously imposed on them, while also allowing them to completely access British products and services. Finally, it will equip the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly with the ability to “pull an emergency brake” if businesses in Northern Ireland are negatively impacted from EU regulations.
The land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is particularly important for trade. Being relatively porous, with many small roads and crossings that are used by individuals and businesses to move goods and people between the two countries, the border allows for goods and services to be transferred from the UK into the EU fairly easily, which is particularly important for sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing that rely on just-in-time supply chains. Additionally, Northern Ireland’s ports, particularly the port of Belfast, facilitate trade with the rest of the UK and beyond. The port of Belfast is a major hub for imports and exports, particularly in the areas of agri-food and manufacturing.[viii]
The DUP has yet to officially release a comment on the content of the Windsor Framework but indicated that they will be reviewing it carefully.[ix] As it also remains yet to be passed by the British parliament, the true impact of the Windsor Framework on trade between Ireland and the UK will depend on the specific trade agreements and laws negotiated under this new approach. In particular, the UK may seek to negotiate new trade deals that compete with existing trade agreements between Ireland and other countries to benefit from the removal of regulatory barriers for goods traveling to Northern Ireland from the UK. The UK’s new direction towards maintaining national security while also protecting trade routes to the EU via Northern Ireland has yet to be implemented and tested, however, it could lead to a significant shift in the UK’s approach to trade with EU countries.
[i] “The Windsor Framework: A New Way Forward.” GOV.UK, Controller of His Majesty’s Stationery Office, Feb. 2023, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/974907/EYFS_framework_-_March_2021.pdf.
[ii] Piper, Elizabeth, et al. “Explainer: What Is the Northern Ireland Protocol?” Edited by Janet Lawrence and Christina Fincher, Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 26 Feb. 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/talks-post-brexit-northern-ireland-trade-edge-closer-deal-2023-02-20/.
[iii] “Democratic Consent Mechanism.” Northern Ireland Assembly, 2023 Northern Ireland Assembly Commission, 2021, http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/assembly-business/brexit-and-beyond/democratic-consent-mechanism/.
[iv] Ferguson, Amanda. “Northern Ireland Business Groups Welcome Brexit Deal ‘Certainty’.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Feb. 2023, https://www.reuters.com/world/uk/northern-ireland-business-groups-welcome-brexit-deal-certainty-2023-02-27/.
[v] “Statement by President Von Der Leyen at the Joint Press Conference with UK Prime Minister Sunak.” European Commission, European Union, 27 Feb. 2023, https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/statement_23_1270.
[vi] “PM Speech on the Windsor Framework: February 2023.” GOV.UK, His Majesty’s Government, 27 Feb. 2023, https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/pm-statement-to-the-house-of-commons-27-feb-2023.
[viii] Carswell, Simon. “Belfast Port Reports Surge in Trade Due to Fewer Post-Brexit Checks.” The Irish Times, The Irish Times, 1 Feb. 2022, https://www.irishtimes.com/business/belfast-port-reports-surge-in-trade-due-to-fewer-post-brexit-checks-1.4791231.
[ix] Haplin, Padraic, et al. “Northern Ireland’s DUP Leader: We Are Studying New Brexit Deal Texts.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 27 Feb. 2023, https://www.usnews.com/news/world/articles/2023-02-27/northern-irelands-dup-leader-we-are-studying-new-brexit-deal-texts.