• British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled a decisive breakthrough in achieving a new deal with the European Union (EU) to resolve the post-Brexit trade dispute related to Northern Ireland.
• After weeks of intensive negotiations, Sunak was joined by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen for a final set of in-person talks in Windsor, south east England, and confirmed a new Windsor Framework.
• The Windsor Framework replaces the previous Northern Ireland Protocol, agreed by former PM Boris Johnson to prevent a hard border between UK territory Northern Ireland and EU member-state Ireland but eventually proving unworkable and causing much tension between the UK and EU.
• It delivers free-flowing trade in goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland by removing any sense of the border in the Irish Sea for goods staying within the UK. These goods will travel as normal through a new green lane without red tape or unnecessary checks, with the only checks remaining designed to prevent smuggling or crime.
• The Stormont Brake has been introduced by fundamentally rewriting the treaty. The new Stormont Brake means the democratically elected Northern Ireland Assembly can oppose new EU goods rules that would have significant and lasting effects on everyday lives in Northern Ireland.
• The issue of Northern Ireland has been one of the most contentious related to Britain’s 2020 departure from the European Union. A return to a hard border between the province and Ireland, an EU member, could have jeopardised the 1998 peace deal known as the Good Friday Agreement.
What is Brexit?
• In June 2016, the UK held a referendum on its membership of the European Union. The question facing voters was: ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?’ 51.89 per cent of voters voted to leave the EU.
• The UK left the European Union on January 31, 2020.
• ‘Brexit’ is the name given to the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union. It is a combination of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’.
• Up to December 31, 2020 a transition period was in place. During that time nothing changed and the UK continued to comply with all EU laws and rules. Negotiations were also held on the new relationship between the UK and the EU during this time. This includes the Northern Ireland Protocol.
• Britain left the European Union’s vast single market for people, goods and services on December 31, 2020 completing the biggest single economic change the country has experienced since World War II.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
• The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland (commonly referred to as the Northern Ireland Protocol), is the part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided on the island of Ireland after the UK formally left the EU.
• The protocol takes into account the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. It was agreed between the UK and the European Union as a stable and lasting solution designed to protect the all-island economy and the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) agreement in all its dimensions, and to safeguard the integrity of the EU single market, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and ensure the integrity of the EU Single Market.
• As part of the broader withdrawal agreement, it was ratified by the EU and the UK, and received the consent of the European Parliament.
• Under the protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market for goods.
• The protocol came into effect on January 1, 2021.
• There have been practical challenges in the operation of the protocol, affecting the everyday lives of people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
• Over the past months, the European Commission and the UK government worked intensively together to find joint solutions in response to these challenges.
• A political agreement in principle between the European Commission and the UK government has been reached on the Windsor Framework.
• This constitutes a comprehensive set of joint solutions to address, in a definitive manner, the real-life concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the EU single market.
• The solutions have been found within the framework of the Brexit agreement, of which the protocol is an integral part.
• These practical and sustainable solutions mark a new way forward on the protocol and ensure legal clarity and predictability for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.
• The solutions strike the right balance between flexibilities and effective safeguards for the protection of the EU single market.
• They rest primarily on new data sharing agreements, arrangements on customs, agri-food, medicines, VAT and excise, State aid, as well as specific instruments designed to ensure that the voices of people of Northern Ireland are better heard on specific issues particularly relevant to communities.
• The new arrangements mean that moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will now be vastly simplified, benefitting citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland alike. At the same time, they will continue to benefit from their unique access to the EU single market for goods.
What is the Stormont Brake?
• Recognising the valuable insight that stakeholders can offer on Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances, the European Commission and the UK government have agreed to establish regular engagement with Northern Ireland stakeholders, including civil society and businesses.
• These arrangements will also provide for a new emergency brake mechanism — the Stormont Brake — to allow the UK government, at the request of 30 members of the Legislative Assembly in Northern Ireland, to stop the application of amended or replacing legal provisions that may have a significant and lasting impact specific to the everyday lives of communities in Northern Ireland.
• The British government will be able to stop the application of new EU laws on goods in Northern Ireland if requested by a third of lawmakers in Northern Ireland’s Assembly.
• This mechanism would be triggered under the most exceptional circumstances and as a matter of last resort, in a very well-defined process set out in a unilateral declaration by the UK.
• Taken together, these joint solutions will ensure that the voices of people in Northern Ireland are better heard when it comes to the operation of the protocol.
• Importantly, the new way forward will give people and businesses in Northern Ireland much needed legal clarity, certainty and predictability.
The way forward
• To give businesses and individuals time to prepare, the implementation of the agreement will be phased in, with some of the new arrangements for goods, agri-food, pets and plant movements introduced later this year and the remainder in 2024. In the meantime, the current temporary standstill arrangements will continue to apply.
• The UK government will no longer proceed with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, as the UK and EU have come to a negotiated agreement.
• Similarly, the agreement will mean the EU withdrawing all of the legal actions it has launched against the UK.