The Prime Minister and the President of the European Commission have unveiled the Windsor Framework (the “Framework”) regarding the future relationship between Northern Ireland, GB and the EU.  The legal texts underlying the Framework were published on 27 February 2023.

The Framework addresses issues that arose under the Northern Ireland Protocol (the “NI Protocol”) and follows extensive discussions between the UK Government and the European Commission.  The NI Protocol, which came into force in January 2021, concerns the movement of goods between GB and NI.  

The UK Government has highlighted three keys aspects of the Framework:

Flow of trade: a new green lane will facilitate a UK internal market system. Businesses moving goods from NI to GB will no longer need to provide export declarations, or similar information.  Further, all retail food and drink in the UK internal market (i.e. including NI) will be subject to UK public health and safety standards.  Albeit, where necessary, goods will continue to have to adhere to EU standards on plant and animal health diseases.  This presents a dual-regulatory approach that businesses in NI will need to be alive to.

The Union: the Framework outlines a number of steps to ensure NI benefits from policies operating in the rest of the UK.  For example, forthcoming reforms to alcohol duties will now apply across the entirety of the UK.  In terms of medicines, the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency will also approve drugs across the UK.  Plants and seeds will move from GB into NI under the UK plant passport scheme, where they are to remain in NI, as opposed to requiring full EU certification.

‘Democratic deficit’: the Framework lessens the number of EU rules applicable in NI and those that are applicable are subject to a consent mechanism.  Separately, the Framework has introduced the ‘Stormont Brake’, which grants the NI Assembly decision-making powers as to whether or not changes in EU rules should apply to NI.  A rule must meet a threshold in terms of its significance, impact on day-to-day living and its longevity, to be subject to the Brake and the Brake will not be available for all EU rules under the NI Protocol.  The intention is that the UK would notify the EU that the Brake has been engaged, following which the relevant rule would be suspended.

The Framework is forward looking and has outlined joint UK – EU structures with a view to addressing any issues that arise from the agreement.  Namely, expert groups to interrogate and consider the application of new rules as well as civic society groups to gauge views on the functioning of the agreement.  The Framework has re-confirmed that the First and deputy First Minister of the NI Assembly will form part of the UK delegation at any UK – EU Joint Committee meetings where issues for discussion concern NI.

In terms of next steps, the implementation of the Framework will be phased in.  In the interim, the standstill arrangements will continue to operate.  This will allow businesses to adjust and prepare for the new measures.  The UK Government has also confirmed that, in light of the Framework, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will no longer be progressed.  In return, the EU will withdraw the seven legal actions commenced against the UK. 

The Framework marks a significant development in the operation of trading arrangements in NI as well as the UK more generally.  Its operation will however not be complete until such times as the NI Assembly is restored.  For example, the Brake can only be triggered where there is a restored Assembly.  The response to the Framework by political parties, particularly those in NI, as well as the status of the NI Assembly will inform its operation.

This article was co-authored by Amy Broddle, a solicitor in the firm’s Dispute Resolution team.