Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has agreed a new “Windsor framework” Brexit deal with the European Union over trading arrangements in Northern Ireland.
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Sunak met European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in Windsor this afternoon and held a press conference to announce their agreement, which the prime minister said marked a “new chapter” in UK-EU relations.
The hope on both sides is that the deal will settle the long-running dispute over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK government has sought to change the original protocol negotiated by Boris Johnson in 2019, arguing that since the UK left the single market in 2021, it has created unacceptable economic barriers in trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“Nobody will get everything they want but everybody will get something,” a source close to the negotiations told the Daily Express. “The issue will be whether it is enough for people to grudgingly accept it or not.”
“Big chunks” of the deal had “already spilled out through unofficial channels”, said the BBC, and Sunak will face an enormous political challenge in getting Northern Ireland’s largest unionist party, the DUP, to back it.
While the agreement is yet to be published in full, here are five key points the deal is hoping to address.
Frictionless trade between GB and Northern Ireland
The first element of Sunak’s deal is “designed to tackle the most practical and obviously disruptive element of the Northern Ireland protocol”, namely that it has effectively created a customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, reported The Times.
To address this issue, Sunak plans to introduce a “trusted trader scheme” that allows businesses to avoid all checks when moving goods from mainland UK to Northern Ireland, said the paper. Businesses will need to declare whether the goods are for sale in Northern Ireland or then being exported on to the Republic of Ireland.
Those sending goods to Northern Ireland will use a “green lane” system, while those exporting onwards will go through a “red lane” with full EU customs clearance in Northern Irish ports. Sunak said that “burdensome customs bureaucracy will be scrapped” for green-lane goods and that the deal has “removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”.
Northern Ireland’s place in the UK
The second element of the deal aims to address the issues within the Northern Ireland Protocol, which restrict Westminster from legislating on some Northern Irish matters.
Under the current agreement, Northern Ireland must follow EU single market rules on VAT, state aid and alcohol duty. Today, Sunak said UK VAT and excise changes will apply in Northern Ireland. This means “British products such as trees, plants and seed potatoes will be available in NI and pet travel requirements have been removed”, said Sky News.
A “landmark” settlement on medicines also means drugs approved for use by the UK regulator will be available in Northern Ireland.
European Court of Justice jurisdiction
The protocol negotiated by Johnson meant that Northern Ireland would accept all future EU laws and regulations and be under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), a state of affairs that was “hugely problematic” for arch-Brexiteers and for unionists, including those in the DUP, “who prize Northern Ireland’s place in the UK above all”, said The Times.
A new “Stormont brake” will allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to pull an “emergency break” on changes to EU single market rules that might apply to the region, Sunak announced today. “I think that is really important part of correcting the democratic deficit that and providing reassurance to everyone in Northern Ireland that they are in control of their own destiny,” he said.
Getting the DUP onside
Sunak still faces the “daunting task” of selling the deal to the DUP, who have said they will not back it unless it met its “red lines” – the “seven tests” that the party outlined in July 2021, said The Guardian.
The DUP said it will only give a verdict on the deal once it has read the final and full text. It has left Downing Street “braced for a response that is at best suspicious and potentially hostile”. The unionist party warned over the weekend that an insufficient deal could leave Stormont in a “permanent state of collapse if they refuse to re-enter power-sharing”, said The Telegraph.
The problem for the DUP is that “accepting that Sunak has reached a good deal” will lead to them having to “restore power-sharing and facilitate the first Sinn Féin first minister”, said the Financial Times’s Stephen Bush.
“So my underlying assumption is that whatever Sunak agrees will not be good enough for the DUP, or the Tories,” he added. “Some of the Conservative party’s Brexit ultras will take their lead from the DUP, while others just want an excuse to do harm to Sunak politically.”
Johnson waiting in the wings
The new deal is one designed to effectively scrap Johnson’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which gave the UK government powers in domestic law to unilaterally override the Brexit treaty with the EU.
Sunak believes his deal has “fixed fundamental legal changes that render the Bill no longer necessary as a bargaining chip”, reported The Telegraph.
But the i news site said that Johnson may be planning to make a “constructive” intervention shortly, in which he makes clear he believes Sunak should press ahead with the legislation, which Sunak has temporarily paused, believing the bill strengthens the UK’s hand in negotiations with Brussels.
But any such intervention would undoubtedly be seen as an attempt to “undermine” Sunak, said the paper, and even as “a ploy to return as PM himself”.