Two years after the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union (EU), London and Brussels have agreed to end their disputes over post-Brexit goods controls in Northern Ireland. After more than a year of negotiations marked by upheavals and tensions, the British Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, arrived, on Monday February 27, at “the agreement of Windsor” on this file which aroused great tension.
A first version integrated into Brexit
Commonly called “Protocol on Northern Ireland”, the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland was signed at the same time as the Brexit agreement on January 24, 2020. For the European Union, these two treaties were signed by the President of the European Council, Charles Michel, and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. For the United Kingdom, it was signed by Boris Johnson, then Prime Minister. The protocol entered into force on 1er January 2021.
The protocol is supposed to take into account the particular situation of the island of Ireland: it has been agreed between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (United Kingdom) and the European Union a stable solution designed to protect the economy of the whole island as well as the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) in all its components, and to preserve the integrity of the EU single market.
Northern Ireland, which continues to be part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom, is subject to a set of EU rules relating to the single market for goods and the customs union. However, the protocol poses a practical problem: it introduces a system of checks and controls at entry points on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom or any other third country. These goods are subject to EU customs duties, unless there is no risk of them entering the EU.
This system nevertheless guarantees the absence of checks and controls between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, thus avoiding the establishment of a physical border and ensuring the free movement of goods under the rules of the EU customs union.
Application difficulties and political tensions
The protocol was never fully implemented, however, as “grace periods” on controls were introduced and extended for products, such as non-frozen meat and medicines. Some companies have denounced excessive formalities, particularly in the field of pharmaceutical products, as noted by the House of Lords.
Barely entered into force, the protocol, since held responsible for supply difficulties in Northern Ireland, has also given rise to tensions between the European Union and London. After the launch of a unilateral review of the post-Brexit status of Northern Ireland, the European executive had launched a series of procedures against London.
The protocol has above all become an internal problem for the authority of Rishi Sunak, faced with the opposition of Brexit hardliners and that of the unionists of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), fiercely opposed to any questioning of the membership of the Northern Ireland in the UK.
Northern Ireland has not had a government since February 2022. Despite successive ultimatums and apparent progress in negotiations between London and Brussels on this subject, London has failed to convince the DUP to participate in an executive. After the announcement of the agreement between London and Brussels, the leader of the DUP announced that he “will take the time to study the details and evaluate the agreement”. Cautious, the British government announced in early February that it had postponed the deadline for holding elections in Northern Ireland to January 2024.
The New “Windsor Framework”
In response to these political tensions, the February 27 Windsor Agreement aims to drastically reduce the necessary customs checks on goods coming from Britain and arriving in Northern Ireland. It must also, if approved by British parliamentarians, reduce the application of EU regulations in the British province.
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Concretely, products arriving from Great Britain in Northern Ireland to stay there will no longer be subject to the same controls as those destined to be then exported to the Republic of Ireland, that is to say to the European Union. This will apply to commercial exchanges, such as the sending of parcels by individuals. The British authorities, and no longer the European Medicines Agency, will issue marketing authorizations for medicines.
The maintenance of certain European laws and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Northern Ireland was one of the main sticking points of the protocol for the Unionists. THE “windsor frame” provides for the creation of a “brake” available to the Northern Irish Parliament. If 30 MPs from several parties oppose the application in the province of a new European law on goods and goods, they will be able to call a vote to block it, on the model of a provision already existing in the agreement peace of 1998.
This “emergency mechanism” will not, however, take away from the European Court of Justice ” the last word “ regarding the rules governing the single market still in force in the province, insisted the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen. Eventually “less than 3%” European laws will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, argues London.
For its part, London renounces a bill thanks to which the British government wanted to unilaterally assume the right to override certain provisions of the Northern Irish protocol. A concession that could revive the revolt of supporters of a hard Brexit within the Conservative Party.