On March 22nd the UK Government won the vote on the Windsor Framework in the House of Commons. To be more precise, the Stormont Brake, a provision within the deal, received the backing of the majority of MPs by 515 votes to 29. The Brake introduces a democratic safeguard that will bestow Stormont with the power – under certain conditions – to block the application of EU rules on the trade of goods in Northern Ireland. This followed the formal acceptance of the key components of the Windsor Framework during a Council of the EU on March 21st. The Framework resolves trade issues between the UK and EU stemming from the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Now that we have set the scene, we will draw on our expertise in public affairs and understanding of the agri-food industry in the EU, UK and Ireland to outline how the Windsor Framework has resolved the issues arising from the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Northern Ireland Protocol
Post-Brexit, the protocol was designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. It moved regulatory and customs checks to the Irish Sea which created barriers to the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As a result, the UK Government sought changes to the protocol and engaged in a lengthy negotiation with the EU, culminating in the Windsor Agreement which was announced in February.
The Windsor Framework in practice
The Framework paves the way for smoother trade within the UK by cutting red tape and reducing trade barriers. This new approach differentiates between goods that are at risk of moving to the EU Single Market, and goods that are destined for final consumption in Northern Ireland. In the parlance, green lanes now exist for goods which are destined for final consumers in Northern Ireland and these goods will not be subject to routine checks. Firms importing goods for final consumers can join a trusted trader scheme being administered by the UK authorities. On the other hand, goods destined for the Republic of Ireland or EU will have to undergo the standard third country checks on arrival in Northern Ireland.
Now let’s take a closer look at the implications for the agri-food sector.
#1 Plant and animal health
Specific guarantees have been provided for the movement of agri-goods, food products including labelling and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Checks. UK public health and safety standards will apply for all retail food and drink in the UK internal market. Under this dual regulatory solution, where relevant, these goods will still need to meet EU standards on animal and plant health diseases. If England, for example, changed food health standards in relation to a particular product, then that product could be sold in shops in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. And if the Northern Ireland Assembly chose to adopt a new EU regulation on food health standards – in line with the new democratic safeguards written into the treaty as set out below – then producers could still sell that good across the UK because of the unfettered access guarantees that UK law already secures.
The administrative burden has been reduced because a single document will be electronically and remotely processed. There is no need for official veterinarians or plant inspectors on site in supermarket distribution centres or costly ‘attestation’ supporting documentation for products. Plants, shrubs, trees and seeds will be able to move into Northern Ireland from Britain again. Goods at risk of entering the EU Single Market will remain subject to full EU customs and SPS procedures. Inputs into food production will continue to benefit from inclusion in the ‘not at risk’ definition.
A subset of high-risk products such as meat, dairy and other composite products will be labelled at a product-level on a phased basis through to 2025, in line with the proposals set out in the UK’s July 2021 Command Paper. Those labelling requirements will first be introduced on meat and fresh dairy from October 2023, with the Government providing transitional reimbursement funding during this first phase. From October 2024 these requirements will be extended to include all other dairy products, such as UHT milk and butter, and would be proposed to apply UK-wide from that point, in consultation with the Scottish and Welsh Governments. From July 2025, composite products, fruit, vegetables and fish will also be labelled on a UK-wide basis. Labelling will replace visual identification.
#3 Agricultural subsidies
Northern Ireland remains fully outside the EU Common Agricultural Policy, with the Northern Ireland Executive empowered to design schemes that work best for Northern Ireland subject only to basic underlying World Trade Organisation rules.
#4 Third country goods
Goods from across the globe can enter the trusted trader scheme, regardless of where they are processed, once they meet the UK public health and safety standards and pose no risk of disease. This also stands where there are potential risks of disease for products moved from the rest of the world, where the UK has chosen to take the same approach to protecting against the same pests and diseases.
#5 Animal feed
The threshold below which companies involved in processing can move goods under the trusted trader scheme has been quadrupled from £500,000 up to £2,000,000. Even if firms are above that threshold, they will be eligible to move goods under the scheme if those goods are for use in animal feed.
#6 Used machinery
The export of used agricultural and forestry machinery will only require a single, self-applied label to indicate the machinery will not move into the EU.
The UK government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which was intended as a ‘backstop’ in case negotiations failed, will be dropped. The EU will halt the various legal actions currently underway against the UK.
In order to fully implement the wide range of joint solutions announced in Windsor, the Commission tabled on February 27th three legislative proposals on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules, medicines and Tariff Rate Quotas (TRQs). The Commission is working closely with the European Parliament and the Council for their swift adoption over the coming months.
On March 24th the UK Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, and Vice-President to the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, formally signed off the Windsor Framework at the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee in London.
The UK government will now look to begin implementing the framework and give it legal effect.
On April 5th, in the Council of the European Union, Coreper II meets where we can expect confirmation of the final compromise text with a view to agreement.
The new and expanded trusted trader scheme for freight will start applying on September 30th 2023, provided that the relevant safeguards are in place.