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EU, UK hail 'new chapter' in ties with Northern Ireland deal

February 27, 2023

The EU and UK want to put an end to more than a year of wrangling over post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland. Will the new deal mend strained ties between Belfast, London and Brussels?

Rishi Sunak and Ursula von der Leyen at press conference
UK, EU hail Northern Ireland deal as "new chapter" in relationsImage: DAN KITWOOD/AFP

The United Kingdom and the European Union have struck a new deal on post-Brexit trading arrangements for Northern Ireland after more than a year of wrangling and political acrimony. Standing alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak hailed a "decisive breakthrough" which "will start making a positive difference to people's lives in Northern Ireland almost immediately."

The new plans, dubbed the "Windsor Framework," will scrap some checks on goods crossing from the rest of the United Kingdom into Northern Ireland, and give Northern Irish lawmakers greater say over future EU rules.

Both sides insist the agreement marks a "new chapter" in EU-UK relations — but in Belfast, the jury's still out.

London Treffen PM Sunak und von der Leyen EU-Kommission | Nordirland-Protokoll
Ursula von der Leyen travelled to the UK to meet Prime Minister SunakImage: Dati Bendo/EU

What's in the new Northern Ireland Protocol deal?

Under the proposed framework, products bound only for Northern Ireland will pass through a new minimal-check "green lane." Products considered "at risk" of crossing the island into Ireland and therefore entering the EU's single market will go through a "red lane" with EU compliance checks.

"This means if food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland," Sunak told reporters. The new deal will also guarantee the future supply of UK-approved medicines to Northern Ireland.

Von der Leyen said to make this work, both sides had "agreed on strong safeguards like IT access, labels and enforcement procedures that will protect the integrity of the EU's single market."

Great Britain encompasses England, Scotland and Wales. The United Kingdom comprises Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The UK left the EU in 2020
The UK left the EU in 2020Image: Niklas Halle'N/AFP/Getty Images

New emergency brake for Stormont lawmakers

Brussels' red line remains intact: Von der Leyen said the EU's top court would have the "final say" on EU laws applying in Northern Ireland.

Observers believe that this will prove unpopular with some in Belfast who want an end to EU jurisdiction. Lawmakers there will, however, get beefed up powers with an "emergency brake" mechanism to intervene on EU goods laws "that would have significant and lasting effects on everyday lives" in Northern Ireland, Sunak said.

What is the Northern Ireland protocol?

Britain's 2016 decision to leave the EU threw up a new political conundrum because Northern Ireland left the bloc with the rest of the UK, while the neighboring Republic of Ireland remained a member.

Since the UK can diverge from EU health and safety standards and other rules post-Brexit, a new system was needed to govern how goods cross the island of Ireland.

All sides ruled out creating a land border on the island to uphold theGood Friday Agreement, a 1998 accord struck to end decades of sectarian conflict between unionist communities and nationalist communities Northern Ireland.

"The history of Northern Ireland has been defined by two communities that are characterised by their different and opposing constitutional aspirations for the future of Northern Ireland," Belfast-based research fellow Lisa Claire Whitten told DW. "You have Unionists who feel and identify as being British, and they want Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. So the relationship between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, for them is crucially important. But you also have nationalists who identify more as Irish and they their constitutional aspiration is for Northern Ireland to join with the rest of the island of Ireland — the Republic of Ireland."

The settled-on solution was the Northern Ireland Protocol, under which some checks are carried out at ports and airports in Northern Ireland on goods from Great Britain.

But this has proved politically polarizing. Not only were there technical issues for businesses, it's been seen as an existential threat by some. Whitten told DW there had been "a sense of new divisions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland."

"For unionists, that feels like a violation of their Britishness and a threat to the place of Northern Ireland within the UK," she said.

On Monday, Sunak insisted the changes would remove "any sense of a border in the Irish Sea."

Historic photo representing the Good Friday Agreement, signed 1998
The Good Friday Agreement ended decades of conflict in Northern IrelandImage: Dan Chung/AP Photo/picture alliance

A 'new chapter' in EU-UK relations?

After the Northern Ireland Protocol partially came into effect in 2021, the EU and UK began exchanging accusations. London tabledlegislation to unilaterally rewrite parts of the mutually-agreed text in 2022 and Brussels started suing the UK.

Throw in three British prime ministers and more than a year of stop-start negotiations — "it's been messy," one EU diplomat who asked not to be named told DW. "There's been a massive erosion of trust."

But a turning point came when Sunak took office, according to the diplomat, marking what Brussels views as "a return to practical government on the part of the UK."

The source said forging a common response to Russia's war in Ukraine had also helped bring London and Brussels closer.

"Today is a happy day," they said. "Getting this deal is what we've been working toward."

But the story doesn't end here with a neat happy ending.

What comes next?

All eyes are now on Belfast to see what the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) makes of the deal. The party has been refusing to enter into a political power-sharing arrangement in the Northern Irish Assembly over staunch opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

"In broad terms it is clear that significant progress has been secured across a number of areas whilst also recognising there remain key issues of concern," DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said in a statement published Monday.

"The DUP will want to study the detail of what has been published today as well as examining the detail of any and all underpinning legal texts." 

If the deadlock doesn't end, critics will likely cast the new deal as a failure.

Sunak said the UK parliament would vote on the proposals but gave no date, stressing that "time and care" would be needed as parties digest the deal. EU ratification will also be needed. 

Whitten hopes power-sharing will be restored soon but doubts this will happen overnight. She says the new deal will likely "require compromise on all sides — which although not unfamiliar in the history of Northern Ireland, is not often comfortable."

Edited by: Anne Thomas

EU has made quite a few concessions: DW's Birgit Maass, Jack Parrock