On Monday the UK government and the European Union announced The Windsor Framework, a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Bright Maize has put together a question-and-answer briefing pack to explain what the Protocol is, how it has impacted UK farmers, what is in the proposed new deal, and what will happen next.
What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?
The Northern Ireland Protocol is part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU, and took full effect in 2021. In order to protect the internal market of the EU and to maintain the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which is an essential part of the Good Friday peace agreement, the Protocol imposed checks at ports and airports on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. Under the Protocol, some EU laws and regulations still apply in Northern Ireland, and the European Court of Justice has continuing jurisdiction.
How has the Protocol impacted UK farmers?
The post-Brexit system for exporting goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland has caused difficulties, expense and delays for farmers who export farm produce and equipment to Northern Ireland. Customs declarations must be made and goods classified correctly. There are physical inspections of goods at border control posts and goods cannot be sent without completed paperwork. Detailed officially-signed and checked export health certificates are required for food, drink and agricultural products, and for plants and seeds.
More broadly, the new checks have caused disruption to Northern Ireland supply chains. The largest Unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), believes the implementation of the Protocol has undermined the province’s position within the United Kingdom by creating “a border in the Irish Sea”. In protest, the DUP First Minister resigned in February 2022, and the DUP has refused to take part in a new Executive following the May 2022 Assembly elections.
What is in Monday’s deal?
The proposed deal, called the Windsor Framework, seeks to restore the smooth flow of trade within the UK internal market. The main mechanism for reducing trade friction is the creation of a dual system for exports from Britain to Northern Ireland, with red and green lanes. Goods whose final destination is the Republic of Ireland will go through the red lane with the full set of customs checks for EU exports. Most goods whose final destination is Northern Ireland will go through the green lane, with much simpler paperwork and without regular custom checks.
Another important part of the agreement is the introduction of something called the Stormont brake, giving members of the Northern Ireland Assembly the right to object to new EU laws and regulations. If at least 30 members of the Assembly from two parties vote against a proposed change, it will be stopped under the Stormont brake and the Westminster government can refer it to a joint committee with the EU. If the joint committee cannot agree how to proceed, the Framework says the matter will be resolved through “independent arbitration”, instead of by the European Court of Justice.
There are other changes to the rules on medicines and veterinary medicines, pet travel, parcels, seed potatoes and plants, VAT and excise duties, state aid, and a reduction in the number of EU rules that apply in the province.
How will the red and green lanes for exports work within The Windsor Framework?
Exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland that qualify for the green lane will benefit from a radically simplified process for goods movements. Exporters will still need to make a Trader Support Service declaration but it will only require standard commercial information without any customs commodity codes. There will be no routine customs checks, with intervention only for risk-based and intelligence-led operations targeting criminality and smuggling. Goods will automatically be treated as internal UK movements for tariff purposes, and the supplementary declarations currently needed for movements after goods have arrived in Northern Ireland will be scrapped.
To qualify for the green lane, exporters will need to sign up for a new internal market trusted trader scheme, which will be automatic for members of the existing trusted trader scheme. There is a turnover threshold of £2m below which companies can move goods under the scheme, but importantly for agriculture animal feed and inputs into food production will be eligible for the scheme even if companies are over the threshold. One area of potential concern to monitor is that although the UK framework document states businesses anywhere in the UK can participate without a physical premises in Northern Ireland, the EU document says companies will need a customs representative in Northern Ireland. Any goods that are not in the green lane will automatically go in the red lane, with the existing EU customs checks and sometimes tariff payments. There will be a new, supposedly improved tariff reimbursement scheme for red lane goods that ultimately stay in Northern Ireland.
What’s happening with agri-food exports?
A major area of concern for farmers under the existing Protocol has been the treatment of food and drink exports to Northern Ireland, which have been subject to EU regulations. Exports have required individual export health certificates and a fixed proportion of checks, and some products like sausages would have been banned in future. Under the Windsor Framework, UK public health, safety and labelling rules will apply for food and drink which is sold for consumption in Northern Ireland, so goods available in Britain will also be eligible for sale in the province. Only EU rules relating to plant and animal health will apply, and export health certificates will be replaced with a single simplified document covering a complete consignment of goods.
There will be new labelling requirements (stating goods are “not for EU”) phased in from 2023, and physical inspections will be greatly reduced as these take effect. The changes should significantly reduce the costs and paperwork involved in exporting agri-food to Northern Ireland.