It was a pivotal day for Northern Ireland and UK-European Union (EU) relations, enshrined under the unusual auspices of British royalty. Monday, February 27, from the town hall of Windsor (in Berkshire), a stone’s throw from the venerable royal castle, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, while smiling and visibly complicit, announced the “Windsor framework”, a very substantial revision of the Northern Irish protocol.
Negotiated by Boris Johnson at the end of 2019, the protocol was a crucial part of the Brexit treaty governing the special fate of Northern Ireland, but was rejected by unionists in the province (loyal to belonging to the United Kingdom) , who saw it as an attack on their British identity because it established a customs border in the Irish Sea. This text had polluted relations between London and Brussels for three years.
The result of four months of intense negotiations, the Windsor framework “marks a turning point for Northern Ireland, it enables smooth trade with the rest of the country, protects its place in the union [britannique] and preserve the sovereignty of the Northern Irish”, assured Rishi Sunak. The deal “opens a new chapter, for stronger relations between the EU and the United Kingdom”, added Ursula von der Leyen, before going to Windsor Castle where she was received by King Charles III. “The king is not involved in the protocol discussions”assured the European Commission, but the meeting was interpreted by the British media as a royal endorsement of the agreement and raised questions, the monarch being supposed to remain politically neutral.
Easing of customs controls
Never fully in force, the 2019 protocol imposed binding customs declarations for goods transiting from the United Kingdom to Northern Ireland, the latter remaining after Brexit in the European internal market for goods. The aim was to avoid the appearance of a border with the Republic of Ireland, which would have threatened the fragile balance of the Good Friday agreement. This peace agreement put an end in 1998 to thirty years of civil war in Northern Ireland between the unionists and the nationalists, partisans of a reunification of the island.
The Windsor framework drastically reduces customs controls on goods intended solely for the Northern Irish market and marketed by players in the ” trust “. On sanitary and phytosanitary products, they will be reduced to 5% of what was initially envisaged. Only goods whose final destination is the Republic of Ireland – therefore within the single European market – will be subject to meaningful controls.
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