The United Kingdom and the European Union announce a new customs agreement for Northern Ireland

British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, announced on Monday, February 27, an agreement to reform the Northern Ireland Protocol included in the Brexit treaty. This is the ‘Windsor Framework Agreement’ that modifies the original plan and, according to Sunak, will respect the markets and sovereignty of Northern Ireland. The new text must be approved by the British Parliament for it to enter into force.

It was one of the issues that had caused the most tension between the United Kingdom and the European Union. The Northern Ireland Protocol It was a source of controversy almost from the moment Brexit was endorsed. But this Monday, February 27, the two parties reached a turning point in their relations, reaching a new agreement.

“I am pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough,” British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said at a press conference after negotiations with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

“This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship,” added Sunak.

At his side, a smiling von der Leyen was seen as the British prime minister announced the ‘Windsor Framework Agreement’which will modify the Northern Ireland protocol.

The agreement, assured the president of the European Commission, will allow “to achieve solutions that respond to the concerns of the Northern Irish people.”

According to Sunak, the new deal will have the effect of offering smoother trade throughout the UK, while also protecting the sovereignty of Northern Ireland.

But while the prime minister has defended the agreed points, they threaten to cause discontent among hardliners in favor of Brexit and also British unionists in Northern Ireland.

What does the “Windsor Framework Agreement” establish?

One of the main changes is the removal of border controls between Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom for goods destined only for the British province.

For this, two markers were adopted: the “green lines” and the “red lines”.

The first refer to products that travel from England, Scotland or Wales specifically to Northern Ireland. These must not pass through customs or health controls.

The second, on the other hand, will apply when the inputs pass through Northern Ireland but do not stay in said territory. In this case, they must go through the procedures imposed by the European Union.

Another key point in the new agreement is the so-called ‘Stormont’ brake, a name referring to the Northern Ireland Assembly. This body will have a say on the new European laws and will be able to decide whether or not they are convenient for the territory.

However, as Von der Leyen highlighted, the Court of Justice of the European Union will be “the final and sole arbiter of EU law”.

In this sense, and as the EFE news agency shows, it would begin to apply a mechanism like the one that governs Norway “which is outside the bloc but has access to the internal market”:

“Brussels must notify London in advance about new rules or directives that affect Northern Ireland, so that the British system will have the option of studying them and appealing,” says EFE.

A deal was also reached on Value Added Tax (VAT) for Northern Ireland companies.

According to the new text, the British Government will have the freedom to establish “critical changes in VAT”. Until now, these companies had followed the legislation of the European bloc.

The agreement also seeks to promote scientific cooperation between the European Union and the United Kingdom. As soon as the Windsor Framework Agreement is implemented, Brussels will “immediately” begin work to seal an agreement with the community’s scientific programme, Horizon Europe.

“The Windsor Framework Agreement means good news for scientists and researchers in the European Union and the United Kingdom,” said von der Leyen.

What did the Northern Ireland Protocol establish?

The Northern Ireland Protocol entered into force with the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union. This sought to guarantee its withdrawal from the European market and respect the border between the two Irelands.

Brexit ended the free movement of products between the United Kingdom and the countries of the European bloc. All countries that are not part of the European Union are subject to customs controls.

However, the issue was even more complex due to the longstanding conflict between Northern Ireland, which belongs to the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which is part of the European Union.

The Northern Ireland Protocol established that customs controls would be carried out on the northern Irish coast.
The Northern Ireland Protocol established that customs controls would be carried out on the northern Irish coast. © France 24

The idea, after Brexit, was to create a control point between both territories. A measure that would have had possible consequences such as reviving the Irish conflict. This is because after a peace agreement was signed between both parties, the need to maintain an invisible border between the two Irelands had been stipulated. In this sense, putting customs controls between these two could open wounds from the past.

Thus, the Northern Ireland Protocol sought to maintain this condition: not to create dividing lines between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

For this, it had been established that the controls and inspections with the United Kingdom, be carried out in the ports of Northern Ireland and not its border with the Republic of Ireland.

Why had the Northern Ireland Protocol caused so much controversy?

Since Boris Johnson was in power, the UK had sought to change the Protocol. The Conservative Party prime minister wanted to remove controls on goods going to Northern Ireland.

This is because, as he pointed out, these controls made British products more expensive and delayed their arrival in Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was created to avoid a physical border between the two Irelands.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was created to avoid a physical border between the two Irelands. © France 24

But Johnson’s claims had led to the deterioration of relations with the European bloc. The European Union had even announced sanctions.

In addition, unionist-leaning politicians had seen the Northern Ireland Protocol as a threat. They claimed that this could incite the independence of said territory and had led a fierce opposition.

Ireland welcomes the agreement and Labor reaffirm their support

The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, assured that the agreement is the result of “a long and difficult” negotiation process between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Dialogues that lasted for more than two years and saw pass three British Prime Ministers (Johnson, Truss and currently Sunak).

“I want to congratulate both teams who have worked so hard and in good faith to get us to this moment. I also appreciate the role of the Northern Irish parties for their constructive involvement,” added Varadkar.

For her part, the vice-president of the Irish nationalist party Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, also viewed the ‘Windsor Framework Agreement’ with optimism.

“I welcome the fact that an agreement has been reached. We have always said that an agreement was possible. We have always said that with pragmatism solutions can be found,” O’Neill told the media.

Within the UK itself, the Labor Party also gave the deal the go-ahead. The leader of the bench, Keir Starmer, ruled that when it is submitted to scrutiny, “Labor will vote in favor of it.”

From different latitudes of the European bloc there has been a positive perception of the new text. Spain, for example, described it as “great lace”.

Despite the winks inside and outside the United Kingdom, the detractors are the same: the eurosceptics. Sunak will have to overcome his opposition to be approved in Parliament and, thus, put an end to years of disputes with the European Union.

With EFE and Reuters

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