The “Windsor framework”: is it the last word on the Irish border puzzle?

The “Windsor framework”: is it the last word on the Irish border puzzle?
Belfast - © James O'Neill/Unsplash James O'Neill

It took a long time, but finally the deal is done. The last knot of Brexit to all the effects, seems to have been solved.

Named the “Windsor framework”, the political agreement between the European Commission and the UK Government, which revises the Northern Ireland Protocol and settles the EU’s bitter post-Brexit dispute with the UK over Northern Ireland, has finally been reached.

The background is well-known. In 2020, the EU and the UK agreed on the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland as an integral part of the European Union – United Kingdom Withdrawal Agreement which followed the Brexit referendum. The aim was to protect the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and ensure the integrity of the EU Single Market. The Protocol entered into force on 1 February 2020, and its provisions have applied since 1 January 2021.

However, since then it has been severely questioned, giving rise to a long discussion at political level on a series of unsettled issues and their potential solutions.

After two years of intensive negotiations the “Windsor Framework” has arrived, not as a formal modification of the Protocol, which would have forced the EU to contradict its initial position, but certainly as a substantial reinterpretation in the direction of the demands from across the Channel for an easing of foreseen commitments.

It constitutes a comprehensive set of joint solutions aimed at addressing, in a definitive manner, the practical challenges faced by citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland since Brexit. It opens with the cancellation of the routine controls imposed on paper by the Protocol in its original version for goods in internal transit between Ulster (which has remained bound to the rules of the European Single market even after Brexit, in order to be able to keep the border with the Republic of Ireland open in compliance with the Good Friday Agreement) and the rest of the United Kingdom.

Instead of the current controls, a new automatic system of a ‘red lane’ and ’green lane’ will be introduced that will distinguish internal trade as being freed from all bureaucratic entanglements from that of products 'at risk of export' to the EU; as well as the guarantee on the barrier-free movement and equality between Ulster and Great Britain in the availability of food, medicines, seeds and other basic national products.

All in all, it means that moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will now be vastly simplified. And at the same time, citizens and business will continue to benefit from unique access to the EU Single Market for goods.

But above all, the agreement introduces a ‘safeguard brake’ at the disposal of the ‘democratically elected’ Northern Irish institutions on any legislative changes in Brussels that might affect Belfast: a brake that could, if necessary, translate into an ad hoc right of veto. In return, London appears destined to continue to accept some role for the European Court of Justice as the ultimate arbiter of any disputes between the two sides.

Is it therefore the last word on the Irish border puzzle?

The British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen have described the agreement as a “decisive breakthrough”. According to Rishi Sunak, thanks to this agreement, Northern Ireland will be “the world’s most exciting economic zone” having privileged access, not just to the UK home market, but also the European Union single market. No other country has that.

Anti-Brexit campaigners have observed however that, obviously, prior to Brexit, the entire UK, not just Northern Ireland, had enjoyed the benefits of unfettered access to the EU single market and the UK domestic market, accusing Sunak of inconsistency. Therefore, Sunak’s argument only makes sense if you believe that being outside the EU will make the UK domestic market a much more attractive one for companies than it was when the UK was a member, they say. Perhaps that might be the case if Brexit were to turbo-charge the economy in some way that would make it outperform the EU. But there is no evidence at all for this happening; instead, so far, most economists believe Brexit has been a drag on economic performance.

On the other side, the agreement has been promoted with reservation by the neo-moderate leader of the Labour opposition Keir Starmer, convinced that it is a useful though ‘belated’ step that a next Labour government will be able to extend well ‘beyond Northern Ireland’, to generally favor a ‘softer’ cooperation between London and Brussels. As if to water down the Brexit, albeit without crusades that call it into question.

Beyond the predicable criticism, one cannot help but observe that Sunak has managed to achieve what his predecessors could not. From time to time, the media argues about the UK’s willingness to rethink Brexit, particularly in the face of the current country’s economic crisis. Though, a step backwards is not even conceivable, while at least a step forward has been made thanks to this agreement on Northern Ireland.

And what about Northern Ireland itself?

The new agreement could also be decisive in unblocking the political stalemate currently underway in Belfast, where the right-wing unionist party, the Dup (Democratic Unionist Party), has opposed the formation of a government of national unity, unless there is a ‘satisfactory’ revision of the Protocol. No official comments have yet come from the Northern Irish Unionists, who have reserved the right to know the details of the new arrangement before making their judgement.

Other than Northern Ireland’s opinion, for Sunak, the challenge of internal discontent within his majority remains. The unease is partly fueled by a desire for revenge on the part of one wing of the Tories, the one previously led by Johnson, who may not be fully satisfied with the deal.

The next procedural steps will mark victory or defeat for Sunak’s achievement, starting with the House of Commons vote on the framework, where in the event of an internal party revolt, Sunak will need Labour's votes to get Westminster's approval.

Sara Parolari

Sara Parolari

Sara Parolari is Senior Researcher at the Institute for Comparative Federalism of Eurac Research. She got her PhD in Comparative and European Legal Studies at the Faculty of Law, University of Trento (Italy) in 2007. Her main research interests are Italian and European regional law, Regional Law of Trentino-Alto-Adige/South Tyrol, and the British legal system. In her free time she manages the free time of her three kids…


Parolari, S. The “Windsor framework”: is it the last word on the Irish border puzzle?

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