A major part of the Windsor Framework arrangements agreed by the UK and the EU to ease the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into operation on 1 October 2023.
David Phinnemore and Lisa Claire Whitten explain what the Windsor Framework is, how it operates in practice, and how it differs from the arrangements that were previously in place. They also explain the Windsor Framework’s ‘Stormont Brake’ and consider whether the Framework has reset UK and EU relations.
What is the Windsor Framework?
There are two ways in which the term Windsor framework is used.
The precise version is that the Windsor Framework is the set of arrangements that the UK government and European Commission announced in February 2023 to address issues concerning the troubled implementation of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
As such the arrangements are designed to significantly reduce the formalities, checks and controls on the movement of goods from Great Britain (GB) into Northern Ireland (NI) across the emerging post-Brexit ‘Irish Sea’ border. In so doing, they are also designed to safeguard Northern Ireland’s position within the UK internal market and so address a key concern of unionist opponents of the Protocol. To this end, the Windsor Framework amends Article 6 of the Protocol on ‘Protection of the UK internal market’ to note that due to Northern Ireland’s ‘integral place’ in the UK internal market ‘specific arrangements’ for the movement of goods within the UK have been introduced.
“The term ‘the Windsor Framework’ is now also used when referring to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland”
The agreed set of arrangements include a green-lane/red-lane system for moving goods from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, a ‘Stormont Brake’ allowing members of the Northern Ireland Assembly to seek to prevent certain changes to EU laws applicable in Northern Ireland under the Protocol, and commitments on the part of the UK and the EU to resolve issues jointly and engage more with stakeholders in Northern Ireland on the operation of the Protocol.
However, the term ‘the Windsor Framework’ is now also used when referring to the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. Although the Protocol very much still exists, the UK and the EU have effectively agreed to avoid references to ‘the Protocol’. It is instead the ‘Windsor Framework’. This can be seen, for example, in the renaming of the EU-UK Specialised Committee on implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland; it is now the Specialised Committee on the implementation of the Windsor Framework, and it oversees the implementation of both the original Protocol and what was agreed in the Windsor Framework. This can be confusing, but at least it avoids any more squabbles over ‘the Protocol’.
What does the Windsor Framework do to ease the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland?
In the Windsor Framework announced in February 2023, the UK and the EU agreed to lift or ease a range of post-Brexit restrictions on GB-NI goods movements otherwise required under the Protocol. Agreeing this provided legal clarity and certainty rather than the legal ambiguity and uncertainty of the UK’s unilaterally operated ‘grace periods’ that had given rise to EU infringement proceedings – now paused – against the UK for non-implementation of its obligations under the Protocol.
Among the easements are reduced certification requirements for the movement of certain retail goods, an easing of restrictions on the movement of certain plants, seed potatoes and agricultural machinery where some bans and controls have also been removed, and arrangements allowing consumers to send and receive parcels between Great Britain and Northern Ireland without customs declarations.
It has also been agreed that goods for use in animal feed, healthcare provision, not-for-profit activities, and construction in Northern Ireland are now all exempt from customs duties.
Additionally, the annual turnover threshold for a Northern Ireland business to be exempt from any customs duties due on goods for commercial processing coming from Great Britain has been raised from £0.5m to £2.0m. Where businesses are moving other goods, or where goods are moved for processing under sectoral exemptions, there is no upper limit on turnover to benefit from the green lane.
On medicines, the EU has adopted legislation allowing for new and innovative human medicines to be accepted for use in Northern Ireland on the basis of UK authorisations. The Windsor Framework does not though address veterinary medicines; revised arrangements are being put in place for 1 January 2025 and the end of an extended ‘grace period’.
The Windsor Framework has though eased certification requirements for GB-NI movements of pets. An agreement was also reached on providing access to EU tariff rate quotas (TRQs) for steel products moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, thus avoiding the risk of these products attracting a 25% EU tariff.
A key condition of what was agreed in the Windsor Framework for GB-NI goods movements is that the easements only apply to goods that remain in Northern Ireland. If goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain are destined to move on into the EU internal market or may do so, either as they are or after processing, then they still need to comply with all relevant provisions of EU law listed in the original Protocol.
The easements are also conditional on the UK establishing effective information and data-sharing arrangements with the EU, introducing new labelling for affected goods, establishing authorised trader schemes, issuing appropriate guidance, and ensuring compliance with its obligations under the Protocol/Windsor Framework. This includes putting in place the required infrastructure in ports in Northern Ireland for carrying out necessary checks on goods movement. The new arrangements are being phased in over the next two years with those concerning the movement of agri-food products starting on 1 October 2023 and those concerning customs formalities and the movement of parcels from September 2024.
The result of these arrangements is the creation of what the UK government refers to as a ‘green lane’ system for goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland and remaining there. Importantly, the green lane does not cover all goods, nor is it necessarily as ‘green’ as its descriptor suggests. The UK government was therefore overselling the Windsor Framework when it initially claimed that the green lane ‘removes any sense of a border in the Irish Sea’. It chose its words more carefully in its Command Paper stating that ‘goods being sold in Northern Ireland will be freed of unnecessary paperwork, checks and duties’ (emphasis added); this is a more accurate description of the new system.
How will the green lane work?
As noted, the green lane only applies ‘where the goods are destined for final consumption or final use in Northern Ireland’. Goods not for final consumption or use in Northern Ireland must go through a ‘red lane’ in which all requirements under the Protocol will apply. Moreover, not all goods for final consumption or use in Northern Ireland are covered by Windsor Framework easements; such goods must also go through the red lane.
Goods covered by the new easements are primarily those subject to EU rules for sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) products and include pre-packaged goods of animal or plant origin (e.g. fresh meat, fresh vegetables), food and food contact goods (e.g. food packaging, cutlery, kitchen equipment), plants (other than for planting) and pet food as well as composite food products (e.g. ready-made meals/ sandwiches). The main users of the green lane are likely therefore to be retailers, especially supermarkets and their suppliers.
“Using the green lane does not mean that GB-NI goods movements will be frictionless”
To use the green lane, however, traders will need to be a ‘listed establishment’, more commonly referred to as a ‘trusted trader’ or ‘authorised operator’. Details of how a trader can become a ‘listed establishment’ were announced by the UK government in summer 2023. Two schemes have been introduced: the Northern Ireland Retail Movement Scheme (NIRMS) for SPS goods and the UK Internal Market Scheme (UKIMS) for goods generally. The former replaces the Scheme for Temporary Agri-food Movements to Northern Ireland (STAMNI) and the latter the UK Trader Scheme (UKTS) both of which had been in operation since the Protocol came into effect on 1 January 2021. A further scheme for parcel carriers to become ‘authorised’ operators will also be established. Changes to the qualifying thresholds and the application processes for the new UKTS and UKIMS systems should make it easier for more operators to become ‘authorised’ and so use the green lane.
Using the green lane does not mean that GB-NI goods movements will be frictionless. While ‘unnecessary’ paperwork and checks have been removed, some paperwork is still required, and some checks will take place. For example, while each good in a supermarket consignment no longer requires an individual certificate, consignments of food require a ‘General Certificate’ containing details of who is sending, receiving and transporting the goods, the place of dispatch and destination, the means of transport, and the proposed point of entry into Northern Ireland. The consignment will also need to be sealed with a unique number and be accompanied by a Common Health Entry Document (CHED). As for checks, these will no longer be routine but ‘risk-based’ and ‘intelligence-led’.
Additionally, in exchange for the reduced formalities, the EU requires ‘Not for EU’ labelling to be phased in for agri-food products entering Northern Ireland through the green lane. Meat and fresh dairy products are to be labelled from October 2023, all other dairy products from October 2024, and composite products, fruit, vegetables, and fish from July 2025.
How is implementation of the Windsor Framework proceeding?
Since the adoption of the Windsor Framework both the UK and the EU have been delivering on commitments. This has been reflected in decisions and declarations adopted jointly in the EU-UK Joint Committee, in domestic UK legislation and in legislation adopted by the EU. The UK government has also issued – albeit not as soon as many businesses would have wished – relevant guidance notices.
“A major milestone in the implementation of the Windsor Framework was 1 October 2023.”
A major milestone in the implementation of the Windsor Framework was 1 October 2023. This is when the new Northern Ireland Retail Movement Scheme and UK Internal Market Scheme, and the agreed arrangements for the GB-NI movement of agri-food products became operational. At a meeting of the Joint Committee on 28 September 2023, the UK and the EU made declarations to the effect that the UK had delivered on relevant commitments. A joint statement followed in which the alternate co-chairs ‘welcomed the progress made’ and ‘reiterated their mutual commitment to continued work to ensure the full implementation of all the elements of the Windsor Framework in a faithful way’. Evidence of this could already been seen on the ground in Northern Ireland where ‘Not for EU’ labelling had begun to appear on relevant packages and against relevant goods on supermarket shelves.
How much use will be made of the Windsor Framework’s green lane?
The principle of a green lane was generally welcomed by businesses in Northern Ireland and those GB traders supplying the NI market. How much the green lane will be used, however, remains to be seen. Retailers, especially supermarkets, seem set to be the largest users; manufacturers in Northern Ireland are more likely to use the red lane so that the goods can be shown to comply with applicable EU law and so be processed and sold on into the EU market. Some traders have questioned the costs associated with meeting the green lane requirements and fear that some smaller suppliers elsewhere in the UK and some suppliers of branded goods will simply no longer supply the Northern Ireland market or at least take more time to adapt to the new requirements. Hauliers are particularly concerned about the practical operation of what are a complex set of arrangements. Only time and implementation will reveal whether the Windsor Framework in facilitating GB-NI movements of goods can and does work, and whether the green lane lives up to the UK government’s initial sales pitch and the more recent claim that arrangements will ‘work unbelievably well’.
What is the Windsor Framework’s Stormont Brake?
Beyond seeking to ease the GB-NI movement of goods, particularly agri-food supplies, the Windsor Framework sets out to reduce the ‘democratic deficit’ in Northern Ireland that arises from the application under the Protocol – now Windsor Framework – of certain pieces of EU legislation and the automatic application of any amendments and replacements. This dynamic regulatory alignment is deemed necessary to ensure that goods can move freely on the island of Ireland and so – as per the shared UK and EU objective in agreeing the Protocol – any physical hardening of the land border can be avoided.
The Windsor Framework therefore introduces a ‘Stormont Brake’ that allows 30 MLAs from at least two political parties to block amendments and replacements to most EU acts that continue to apply in Northern Ireland. Certain criteria need to be met, however. For example, MLAs can only block the application of those amendments and replacements that would have ‘a significant impact specific to everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland in a way that is liable to persist’. And, if the EU disputes the claim that the criteria have been met, the matter is referred to arbitration.
The detailed domestic arrangements for the operation of the Stormont Brake – including the creation of a Windsor Framework Democratic Scrutiny Committee in the NI Assembly – have been agreed in domestic UK legislation. However, the legislation has still to come into force and will only do so if and when there is a return to devolved government and MLAs return to Stormont. Without a functioning NI Assembly there is no Stormont Brake available for MLAs to pull.
Also contingent on a return to devolved government in Northern Ireland is the introduction of a second ‘brake’ that the UK government has unilaterally introduced as part of the Windsor Framework. It allows MLAs, unless certain exceptional circumstances apply, to prevent the UK government from agreeing to add a new EU act to the Protocol/Windsor Framework that falls within its scope. Such new EU acts would include those necessary to maintain Northern Ireland’s position in the EU internal market and so avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
Has the Windsor Framework reset the UK-EU relationship?
Since the Windsor Framework was agreed, there has been a significant improvement in UK-EU relations. On the Protocol/Windsor Framework, this can be seen in the revival and normal operation of its governance arrangements.
The EU-UK Joint Committee has met three times so far during 2023; it only met once in the previous eighteen months. The renamed Specialised Committee on the implementation of the Windsor Framework has begun meeting regularly – four meetings between April and September 2023 – having also only met once in the previous eighteen months. Meetings of new formations focusing on VAT/excise and regulatory divergence have also been held. These meetings have also generally resulted in joint statements, thus reflecting a collaborative approach to dealing with issues as opposed to the contrasting individual statements that followed most meetings in the previous two years. Both the UK and the EU have also been putting in place arrangements for implementing commitments on joint stakeholder engagement. All this suggests a normalisation of relations.
As for the wider UK-EU relationship, the dominant political and media narratives are that agreement on the Windsor Framework has opened the way for closer cooperation, albeit not necessarily as swiftly as anticipated. The UK’s association with the Horizon research programme, for example, took more than six months to agree. In the meantime, a memorandum of understanding on regulatory cooperation in financial services was agreed and discussions began on developing UK cooperation with the EU’s border protection agency Frontex. And all this has been accompanied by more a collaborative approach to addressing issues and a greater willingness to engage in dialogue rather than confrontation.
All this points to the Windsor Framework as a re-set of sorts in UK-EU relations. But that re-set does not automatically mean a significant change in the substance of the relationship. Moreover, it is still relatively early days in the Windsor Framework’s implementation, and its operation needs obligations to be fulfilled.
Why has the Windsor Framework not (yet) led to the restoration of the NI Assembly and NI Executive?
While the UK government has come to agreed terms with the EU, those terms have not assuaged the concerns of many unionists in Northern Ireland, most notably those in and supporters of the Democratic Unionist Party, around what Brexit and the Protocol – now Windsor Framework – mean for Northern Ireland and its position in the United Kingdom. This is one reason at least for why there has not been a return to devolved government in Northern Ireland, and Stormont remains empty.
“Speaking at the Conservative Party conference at the start of October, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris struck an optimistic note”
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference at the start of October, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris struck an optimistic note about the ‘unbelievably promising’ economic outlook for Northern Ireland notwithstanding the continued political stagnation. Addressing the DUP directly, Heaton-Harris pledged to his ‘friends in the unionist community’ that the government will ‘continue working to answer… remaining concerns’ regarding the Protocol/Windsor Framework. Whether or not such efforts lead to a return of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland remains to be seen.
Note: this explainer draws on and includes extracts from a previously published blog: ‘The Windsor Framework: How Green is the ‘Green Lane’?’, QPOL, 2 August 2023. The explainer has been produced as part of the ESRC-funded Post-Brexit Governance NI project at Queen’s University Belfast.