Three years after the UK left the European Union, the two have achieved what seemed to be impossible: They clinched an agreement on Northern Ireland’s trading arrangements in an attempt to resolve the biggest obstacle left over from the bitter split.
The deal adds flexibility for goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland and includes a new mechanism for Northern Ireland to challenge amendments to existing EU law while keeping the European Court of Justice as the sole arbiter of EU regulations. The UK also agreed to shelve a controversial bill that would allow it to override the agreement.
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UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has promised to give MPs a vote on the the new “Windsor Framework” that will likely take place next week, according to a person familiar with the plan who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Since the opposition Labour Party has said it will support the deal, it’s likely to pass.
While the accord still needs formal approval on both sides, it could bring the EU-UK relationship back in from the cold. Here are five key takeaways.
A “green” and “red” lane system separating goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from those continuing into the EU will replace existing arrangements, requiring less onerous checks and paperwork on products staying within the UK than those destined for the EU. This aims to resolve the biggest practical impact of the old agreement, which made it more complicated for businesses whose supply chains cover both Britain and Northern Ireland.
Sunak said this new system will deliver “smooth flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom.”
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The European Court of Justice will continue to be the final arbiter on matters of EU law affecting Northern Ireland. The role of the ECJ has been a key concern for pro-unionist politicians in Belfast and London, who didn’t want EU regulations superseding UK laws. The issue has always been a non-starter for the European Commission, which always demanded that the ECJ have final sway over the bloc’s rules.
Sunak told pro-Brexit MPs on Monday that he sympathized with their view that EU law should have no role in Northern Ireland, but that this was impossible while the region remains in the bloc’s single market. He said he secured the absolute minimum amount necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and that the amount of EU law that will now apply Northern Ireland will be less than 3%.
The agreement introduces a mechanism — called the “Stormont Brake” — that Sunak described as a “veto” over whether amended EU laws would apply in Northern Ireland. EU officials outlined a more subtle mechanism intended as a measure of last resort that would only apply when the bloc amends or replaces existing laws with a significant and persistent impact on everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland.
It would require 30 Northern Ireland lawmakers to request for the provision to be triggered. Then, the UK government would have to decide to use the mechanism, which would prompt efforts by London and Brussels to resolve the dispute. If London moves ahead with the brake, the EU would be empowered to take unspecified measures to protect its internal market, officials said. EU officials said the ECJ wouldn’t be involved in the process.
The UK government will be able to extend taxation changes to Northern Ireland more easily, including value added tax on goods.
It’s a similar outcome for the UK’s ability to extend subsidy controls to Northern Ireland — meaning it expects more than 98% of the region’s subsidies to be unaffected in practice. The rules on state aid had created a broader concern that a chilling effect had been placed on business investment and trade, the UK said, and hopes the new arrangement will provide more certainty.
Sunak received broad support from Conservative MPs when he announced the deal to the House of Commons late Monday. Former Brexit Secretary David Davis called it a “spectacular negotiating success” while former Prime Minister Theresa May urged her colleagues to back the agreement.
Still, Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party — which has blocked the formation of the region’s power-sharing government for over a year — continued to express their concerns. Its leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, said he welcomed the progress but wasn’t yet prepared to endorse the deal.
“There remain key issues of concern,” Donaldson said in the House of Commons. He said his party would study the deal closely before passing judgment. He sought an assurance from Sunak that Northern Ireland’s place within the UK’s internal market would be protected. Sunak said he respected the DUP’s need to examine the deal.
The new deal still need to be put into international and domestic law. Some new arrangements, like taxation, will then apply immediately, but others will need to be phased in over the next couple of years. The government expects some new arrangements for goods, agrifood products, pets and plant movements to be introduced later throughout this year and next, such as on parcels.
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