UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has struck a new deal with the European Union on post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland and has said it would pave the way for a new chapter in London’s relationship with the bloc.
Standing alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at a news conference in Windsor on Monday, Sunak said the two sides had agreed to ease trade rules for the British province and give its lawmakers more control over the laws they have to follow.
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“I’m pleased to report that we have now made a decisive breakthrough,” Sunak said, adding that they had agreed to change the original deal, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, to create the “New Windsor Framework”.
“This is the beginning of a new chapter in our relationship.”
What’s in the deal?
Goods that are traded between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom and that are destined to stay in the Northern Ireland market will move through a “green” lane and be free from custom checks, Sunak announced.
The new agreement on post-Brexit trading rules has “removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea”, he said.
UK-approved medicines will be fully available in Northern Ireland while the deal will also limit, but not scrap, oversight of the protocol by the EU’s European Court of Justice.
In a bid to address a so-called democratic deficit within the protocol, Northern Ireland’s devolved Stormont assembly will be empowered to prevent the application of new EU laws, subject to agreement from London and Brussels.
Von der Leyen said the agreement is to make sure that the same food and medicine is available in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
Under the new agreement “people sending parcels to friends or family or doing their shopping online will have to complete no customs paperwork,” Sunak said.
Other examples cited by Sunak for how people could benefit from the agreement included lower prices for beer and the removal of travel requirements for pets.
Why is it important?
The landmark deal follows more than a year of tense talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol, which has unsettled the province 25 years on from a historic peace deal that ended decades of armed conflict.
The protocol, which is part of Britain’s agreement with the European Union to leave the bloc in 2020, created a de facto trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish sea.
The pact kept the province in the European single market for physical goods and subject to different customs rules than the rest of the UK, angering pro-UK unionists there and eurosceptics in London.
The UK government had threatened a unilateral overhaul of the protocol unless the EU agreed to wholesale changes, souring diplomatic ties and risking a wider trade war.
How has Ireland responded?
The Republic of Ireland’s foreign minister welcomed the deal, and urged the Northern Irish parties to act quickly to restore their power-sharing government.
“I heard first-hand the concerns of many unionists. I believe they will see in this a genuine response to their genuine concerns,” Micheál Martin, who was Ireland’s prime minister or taoiseach for much of the negotiations, said in a statement.
“I appreciate that some time may be needed to consider the detail of the deal, but I would urge political leaders in Northern Ireland to act quickly, to put in place institutions than can respond directly to the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Is there opposition to the deal?
The deal is likely to face opposition from Brexiteers, including Sunak’s predecessor Boris Johnson, and from lawmakers representing the pro-British unionist community in Northern Ireland.
The protocol has faced staunch opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest pro-UK party in Northern Ireland, which argues that it threatens the province’s place within the UK.
The DUP has been particularly angered by the prospect of EU law retaining a role in Northern Ireland, and its response in turn could determine the reaction of Conservative eurosceptics in London.
DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson, who has been refusing to re-enter a power-sharing government in Belfast set to be led by nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland, tweeted that the party would “take our time to consider the detail”.
Sunak said that MPs would vote on the deal in the House of Commons “at the appropriate time”.