Some new post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland due to come into force in weeks will prove “heavier” than the current provisions, a House of Lords committee has warned, urging London to “continue” to negotiate outstanding details.
The Windsor Framework, agreed by Rishi Sunak, the British Prime Minister, and the EU in February, promised sweeping changes to the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol, which had soured UK-EU relations and plunged the region into political crisis.
In a 133-page report released on Tuesday, the House of Lords Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland Committee hailed the framework as a “significant improvement” on the previous deal, particularly for large retailers, who can use a new “green lane” to send checkless goods to the region.
But committee chairman Lord Jay said there remained unresolved issues, including requirements for labels on goods destined to stay only in Northern Ireland and rules for carriers transporting mixed loads from Britain, only a small fraction of which could end up heading to the EU.
“There is no doubt that the Windsor framework is a big, big improvement,” he told the Financial Times. But he added that a “tremendous amount of work” remained to be done. “It’s not the end of the game, it’s the beginning,” he said.
The Windsor Agreement promises one-time access to the single EU and UK markets for Northern Irish goods, but businesses and trade groups told the committee that “the movement of goods is likely to be heavier than the protocol as it has worked so far” as grace periods have prevented its full implementation.
Brexit left Northern Ireland inside the EU’s single goods market, but the protocol, which came into force in 2021, put a customs border in the Irish Sea, angering pro-British trade unionists who feel cut off from their own country.
The Democratic Unionist Party, the biggest pro-British political force, has blocked the formation of a power-sharing executive over the issue since the May election last year and is demanding as-yet-unspecified guarantees from London that its rights will be protected as a precondition to returning to the executive and assembly in Stormont.
The Windsor framework promises to sweep away the vast majority of the protocol’s cumbersome customs formalities if businesses sign up for a trusted trader program that will launch on September 30.
If their goods are destined to remain in the region, they will enter Northern Ireland through a green channel. Goods likely to travel to Ireland and the EU will pass through a red channel, with full customs, food and animal health checks. Some companies say they will choose to use red lanes to gain free access to the EU.
After October 1, meat and dairy products entering through the green lane will have to carry labels that read “Not for EU”.
Trade body Retail NI said it was “disappointed with the lack of effective engagement on the labeling issue”, chief executive Glyn Roberts said. “We need to make sure this new program works for independent retailers as well as large supermarkets,” he added.
Although Brexit was designed to allow the UK to chart its own regulatory course, some industries, such as dairy, require UK and EU rules to remain aligned as much of Northern Ireland’s milk is processed in Ireland.
Jay warned that the regulatory divergence between the EU and the UK “is going to cause difficulties”. Some companies fear the region could find itself in a regulatory “no man’s land” that could hurt its supply chains and competitiveness.
Jay warned that on some outstanding issues, such as an agreement on the supply of veterinary drugs, “it’s not just about clarifying what has been agreed, it’s actually about negotiating what hasn’t been agreed yet.”.”
He added: “They really have to keep going with this.”