What is at stake with the Windsor Framework: a light at the end of the tunnel or just another illusion?

27/02/2023. Windsor, United Kingdom. The Prime Minister Rishi Sunak welcomes the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen to Windsor to discuss the Northern Ireland talks. Picture by Simon Walker / No 10 Downing Street

On Monday 27th February, the President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a new deal concerning Northern Ireland (NI): the Windsor Framework. The leaders appeared in front of the press praising the joint efforts and commitment demonstrated by both parts, in what could be the cornerstone to end Brexit-related tensions. Labelled as a “new chapter” for EU-UK relations, it is still however uncertain whether, in the end, the Framework will satisfy all the actors involved, especially Northern Ireland and its unionists. 

The post-Brexit scenario for Northern Ireland 

Brexit made it essential for the EU and UK to reach a deal to regulate their partnership and the delicate Northern Irish equilibrium. As a result, the Withdrawal Agreement came into force on 1st February 2020, followed by a Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland a year later. The protocol was agreed by former Prime Minister Boris Johnson and its pillar was to not establish a hard border on Irish soil. Given, indeed, Northern Ireland’s “bloody” past, it was feared that introducing cameras or border posts could cause new conflicts. For this reason, checks and controls were moved away from the Irish border to Northern Ireland’s ports. Critiques were not spared: while unionists parties claimed a real border was raised between NI and the UK, businesses complained about the extra costs and delays related to the checks. 

Concerns about the new “border” in the sea renewed unrest in Northern Ireland. Its political organisation and division of powers is indeed established by the Good Friday Agreement of 1998: power must be shared in the assembly between nationalists and unionists. However, since the nationalist party Sinn Féin won the elections in May, Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has obstructed the regular functioning of the assembly, pushing for changes to the Protocol and leaving Northern Ireland without a government. 

What are the changes introduced by the Windsor Framework?

After prolonged talks, the EU and UK have reached an agreement in principle on the Windsor Framework. As von der Leyen stated: “The new agreement will allow us to begin with a new chapter. It provides for long lasting solutions that […] will work for all people and businesses in Northern Ireland. Solutions that respond directly to the concerns they have raised”. The Windsor Framework aims at easing customs checks for goods circulating in Northern Ireland, coming from the UK or destined to enter the Republic of Ireland. It “delivers smooth flowing trade within the whole United Kingdom”, said Sunak

The Windsor Framework addresses many of the areas of the Northern Ireland Protocol that were never fully implemented: for what concerns trade, it establishes two lanes along which goods will move. Goods directed to Northern Ireland will move on a green lane, implying less checks and paperwork for UK businesses registered to the UK trusted trader scheme. Instead, a red lane will move all goods destined to enter the EU single market, which therefore require more accurate checks. Easements have been introduced also for food providers, parcels destined to NI coming from people or businesses in the UK, and medicines allowed by the UK regulator which will now be available also in Northern Ireland. 

Another major point of the framework concerns the possibility for NI assembly to oppose new EU legislation related to the single market. As a matter of fact, Northern Ireland is still part of the EU single market, therefore some EU laws still apply there. However, PM Sunak assured that “The only EU law that applies in Northern Ireland under the framework is the minimum necessary to avoid a hard border with Ireland and allow Northern Irish businesses to continue accessing the EU market”. So, in order to give Northern Ireland’s lawmakers a voice on new EU trade rules, the Stormont Brake has been included in the framework. It establishes that the UK government will be able to suspend the application in Northern Ireland of an incoming piece of EU law at the request of at least 30 members of the Irish assembly. In case the EU was to dissent from the pulling of the Stormont Brake, the dispute would be solved by the parties autonomously, without recurring to the ECJ. To be applied, this mechanism requires a fully functioning assembly; thus, its future implementation depends on DUP’s willingness to restore power-sharing in NI.

EU and UK finalise the Windsor Framework – yet there is no unity in the Commons 

On Wednesday 22nd March, the House of Commons was called to vote on the Stormont Brake, expressing its support or not for the Windsor Framework. 515 MPs voted in favour, while 29 were against it. Sunak’s obtained support also by opposition parties – Labour, Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats. As predicted, some Tory MPs voted against the Stormont Brake, including former prime ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss. Nonetheless, some Tory members expressed themselves, hinting at a visible assent around Sunak’s figure; while others claimed this might be the end to decade-long strives, allowing finally to move on from Brexit

The DUP, after declaring to carry out a minute scrutiny of the text, decided to oppose the Stormont Brake. The reason is that: “There remain key areas of concern which require further clarification, re-working and change”, as stated by DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson ahead of Wednesday’s vote. The main issue is that “the ‘brake’ is not designed for, and therefore cannot apply, to the EU law which is already in place and for which no consent has been given for its application”. Given this result, it is unlikely that the DUP will re-enter the power sharing assembly soon.

Notwithstanding DUP’s opposition, the EU and UK formalised the Windsor Framework after a series of meetings were held in London on Friday 24th, co-chaired by EU Commission’s vice president, Maroš Šefčovic, and UK’s foreign secretary, James Cleverly. In a joint statement, Šefčovic and Cleverly affirmed that “these arrangements address, in a definitive manner, the challenges in the operation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland over the last 2 years”, protecting the interests of people in NI, the Good Friday Agreement, the European single market and UK’s internal market. 

It may seem, then, that the issue has come to an end. However, still, there are some pending questions. How long will the DUP carry on with its campaign against the framework – blocking consequently the democratic functioning of the power-sharing assembly? And, could the framework be the real endpoint to disputes between EU and UK, or its implementation will only cause more friction between the two sides of the Channel? Those are answers only time will provide us.