10th Dec 2023

Sunak breaks impasse with EU trade deal on Northern Ireland

  • UK prime minister Rishi Sunak welcomes EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor, just outside London, on Monday (Photo: Flickr - Downing street 10)
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The EU and the UK agreed to a deal on Monday (27 February) fine-tuning the post-Brexit trade arrangements for Northern Ireland, breaking years of impasse.

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen and British prime minster Rishi Sunak met in Windsor, outside London, to seal the agreement which has been in the making for months.

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The deal, dubbed the "Windsor Framework" by Sunak, has been expected for several days. Von der Leyen described the agreement as "historic".

The pound jumped 0.7 percent higher, to $1.20, after the deal was announced.

The Northern Ireland Protocol was agreed as part of the divorce deal in 2020 under former prime minister Boris Johnson, and it was suggested by the UK side.

It created a de facto customs border in the Irish Sea, between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain, in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The aim was to avoid a backdoor into the EU's single market, and to maintain hard-won peace in Northern Ireland which was reached in 1998 after decades of sectarian violence between Protestants and Catholics, who were represented by unionist and nationalist parties, respectively.

The protocol has meant that Northern Ireland has continued to follow some EU rules, meaning the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has maintained some oversight in the region.

Von der Leyen said the ECJ will have the final say on EU law and single market issues.

Critics, including Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), have been arguing that this undermines the unity and sovereignty of the UK.

"The only EU law applies in Northern Ireland under the framework is the minimum necessary to avoid a hard border, and allow Northern Irish business accessing the EU," the UK prime minister argued on Monday.

As part of the deal, so-called 'trusted traders' would be able to use 'green lanes', and get through customs check with less paperwork. Red lanes will be reserved for goods destined to the EU, with more customs checks.

Drugs approved by the UK will be available in Northern Ireland, and postal parcels will not to go through customs between the region and the rest of Great Britain. VAT rules in the UK will be applied in Northern Ireland too.

"We have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea," Sunak said.

Politicians in Northern Ireland had wanted to have more say in EU rules that they need to follow — a red line for the EU, which also has Norway and Switzerland follow EU custom rules without much of a say.

The deal will introduce a mechanism called a 'Stormont Break', that would allow the devolved assembly in Belfast to pull an emergency brake if it wants to stop EU laws that will have "significant and lasting effect". Sunak claimed the UK government will be able to apply a veto.

Von der Leyen said that the Stormont break is designed for emergency cases, and any changes in law in the UK or in the EU will come with extensive consultation with communities in the region beforehand.

An EU official later said the brake could be used "under the most exceptional circumstances and as a last resort".

Under the framework, the brake can be triggered by 30 lawmakers in the Northern Ireland assembly in case an amended EU law has a "significant and lasting impact on the everyday lives of communicates" in the region.

Von der Leyen suggested that the "huge challenges" — including the war in Ukraine and climate change — the UK and the EU is facing together helped create the environment for an agreement.

"We are standing on the same side, shoulder-to-shoulder," von der Leyen said, when asked what made it possible to have a deal with Sunak, and not with previous UK premiers. Since the UK Brexit referendum in 2016, Britain has got through five PMs: David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss, and now Sunak.

The commission chief said there had been a "very constructive attitude to find practical solutions from the beginning."

Northern Ireland minister in the UK government, Steve Baker, a hardcore Brexiteer himself, said ahead of the announcement that Sunak secured a "really fantastic result".

But once again, reaching a deal between the EU and the UK government does not mean the end of the road.

Sunak has been busy in recent days trying to secure the backing of Northern Ireland's loyalist Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and his won hardline Brexiteer backbench MPs.

DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that his party "will take its time" to evaluate the deal.

Royal storm

Von der Leyen also met on Monday with King Charles III, which has caused an internal UK political storm.

While the palace has implied it was the prime minister's office that had the final say on the meeting, Downing Street suggested it was the king's decision — nevertheless, the meeting is not part of the protocol process.

Former DUP leader Arlene Foster tweeted she could not "quite believe that No10 would ask HM the King to become involved in the finalising of a deal as controversial as this one".

Hardline Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg also criticised the government, saying "it is also constitutionally unwise to involve the king in a matter of immediate political controversy".

In 2019, as leader of the House of Commons, Rees-Mogg himself asked Queen Elizabeth II to discontinue a parliament session to limit MPs' possibility to scrutinise or block Brexit. Later the supreme court ruled this move unlawful.

The article was updated shortly after publication with new details on the Stormont brake.


UK's Sunak edges towards closing post-Brexit trade deal

As EU diplomats talked of unprecedented momentum to seal the deal, the old hurdle remained: having a UK premier invest and risk sufficient political capital at home to convince his parties' Brexit hardliners and DUP to move on.

EU warns Truss to stick to Brexit deal

The former foreign minister was the one who introduced Northern Ireland protocol bill earlier this year, which would allow the UK government to abandon parts of the protocol — in breach of its divorce agreement with the EU.

Knives out on all sides for draft Brexit deal

British politicians from almost all sides have denounced a draft Brexit deal agreed between London and Brussels on Tuesday, raising the risk of a messy outcome.


The Stormont Brake — Brexit over or future headache?

This 'Windsor Framework' renegotiation took place without any new (European) Council guidelines, mandate or significant involvement. Members states and the European Parliament, which once used to scrutinise every twist and turn with their magnifying glasses, now face a fait accompli.

Sunak lobbies Northern Ireland with EU trade deal

The "Windsor Framework" still needs to be formally approved by both sides, but it has the potential to revitalise relationship between the the EU and the UK that went sour over during the divorce.

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