‘Mature, sensible diplomacy’: UK and EU agree new trade agreement for Northern Ireland in Brexit breakthrough

By on 28/02/2023 | Updated on 28/02/2023
Photo by Simon Walker, No. 10 Downing Street via Flickr

The UK and the European Union have agreed a new deal over post-Brexit trading agreements for Northern Ireland, after months of negotiations over a highly contentious protocol agreed in 2019.

UK prime minister Rishi Sunak and EU president Ursula von der Leyen agreed the deal in Windsor yesterday, with Sunak describing it as a “decisive breakthrough” and both hailing it as a reset in frayed relations between the two parties.

The so-called ‘Windsor Framework’ aims to ease trading issues created by the Northern Ireland Protocol – part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement ratified in January 2020 – which determined trade rules for Northern Ireland. The protocol was agreed to allow goods to pass between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, without checks, ensuring there would be no hard border between the two.

The creation of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland under any agreement would have undermined the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to decades of violent conflict between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland. Unionists and loyalists want Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK, while nationalists and republicans want Northern Ireland to become part of a united Ireland.

The protocol effectively created a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain – with goods being checked at ports on the Irish Sea – which infuriated unionists and made it more difficult for businesses in either part of Ireland to import goods from Great Britain.

The new deal aims to ease customs red tape, equalise some tax rules across the UK, and give Northern Ireland more of a say over the future of the arrangement.

Under the framework, goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland as their final destination would travel through a new “green lane” with fewer checks, while goods bound for the Republic of Ireland – and therefore the EU single market – would pass through a separate, more stringent “red lane”.

At a press conference held by Sunak and von der Leyen after agreeing the deal, the British PM said the arrangement would end “burdensome customs bureaucracy” and “routine checks” on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and claimed he had “delivered what the people of Northern Ireland asked for… we have removed the border in the Irish Sea.”

“The United Kingdom and European Union may have had our differences in the past, but we are allies, trading partners and friends, something that we’ve seen clearly in the past year as we joined with others to support Ukraine,” he said. “This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship.”

Von der Leyen echoed the sentiment. “This new framework will allow us to begin a new chapter,” she said. “It provides for long-lasting solutions that both of us are confident will work for all people and businesses in Northern Ireland. Solutions that respond directly to the concerns they have raised.”

Trust key as Sunak seals deal

Speaking to Global Government Forum after the deal was reached, Philip Rycroft, the former permanent secretary at the Department for Exiting the European Union that led the UK government’s plans for the country’s departure from the bloc, said the changes were “a good deal, no doubt about it”. He said they address the major points of friction in the protocol and would make implementation a lot smoother.

“Credit to the teams who negotiated it, and credit to the politicians on both sides for having the wisdom to put the emphasis behind it. It resolves, potentially, what was a very sticky issue.”

Rycroft added that it was a milestone in the longer term EU-UK relationship, highlighting the work that Sunak had done to build trust with the EU following his arrival at No.10 last October.

Lack of trust between the EU and UK governments was a problem in 2019, he said, when the initial agreement was reached.

“You had the EU, essentially, tying everything down in great detail [as a result], which is part of the reason why there were all the problems with implementation.

“How they have been able to get out of that pickle is by being able to build that trust.”

This is in contrast to the position of former prime minister Boris Johnson and his chief negotiator David Frost, whose position was “that you have got to beat these guys up to get a deal”, Rycroft said.

“Sunak is showing that you get a deal by building trust and confidence… This is mature, sensible diplomacy. It has removed a sticking point in what is a pretty important relationship at an important time, and may lay the foundations for further improvements in the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship.”

In a possible sign of the improved relationship, von der Leyen said at the press conference yesterday that she would be happy to begin work with the UK on an association agreement, which is the precondition to join the EU’s Horizon research and innovation funding programme.

Rycroft also highlighted the importance of the data-sharing provisions in the agreement to allow for the removal of checks on goods from mainland Great Britain heading to be consumed in Northern Ireland. The framework stated that “new data-sharing arrangements [will be used] to monitor and manage risks, with internal UK traders able to move goods without tariffs, on the basis of ordinary commercial information, and without physical checks unless there is a specific risk or intelligence basis, such as to prevent smuggling or other criminality”.

Such data sharing going is vital to establishing the UK and EU’s long-term relationship on a stable footing, Rycroft said.

“That is what gives the EU confidence that they have got a handle on what is crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and therefore where the risks lie around the stuff that might leak onto EU markets.”

Will powersharing be restored in Northern Ireland?

Sunak’s task now will be to win the backing of Euroskeptics within his own party and, crucially, Northern Ireland unionists. The PM’s hope is that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will restart power-sharing in Northern Ireland on the basis of the agreement. The Northern Ireland devolved government collapsed last year after it was boycotted by the DUP in protest at the protocol’s impact.

DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said the party would take time to come to a “collective decision” on the new framework. He denied that there was a split in opinion among colleagues over the UK-EU agreement but said “there will be a diversity and a range of view”. Coming to a decision on whether or not his party would back the deal would “take as long as it takes”, he said.  

Read more: The politics of personalities: how three bad behaviours shaped Brexit

Rycroft said that the UK and EU would now get onto the detail of how to implement the agreement.

“There’s always a lot of work to be done to promote these things. There will have to be legal instruments put in place on both sides, so it will take time to get everything in place. But the deal is done – it doesn’t require parliamentary approval, and it can’t be held up by the DUP.

“Most people are hoping that the DUP will say, ‘our biggest objection to going back into the executive has been removed, and therefore we will resume responsible government in Northern Ireland’. There’s no guarantee, of course, that they’ll do that, but that becomes a problem of domestic Northern Ireland politics. It doesn’t stop this deal doing what its framers intend to do.”

Read more: Construction of demolition? Explaining Boris’s Brexit battle

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About Mia Hunt and Richard Johnstone

Mia Hunt is Global Government Forum's editor, and Richard Johnstone is Global Government Forum's executive editor.

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