The EU and the United Kingdom seal peace in Northern Ireland with a new agreement after Brexit

The European Commission and the British Government have reached a new agreement on trade in Northern Ireland to close one of the political and legal disputes that have dragged on since Brexit. After almost two years of tensions, the president of the Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, and the British prime minister, Rishi Sunak, sealed the pact this Monday in Windsor, on the outskirts of London.

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“The UK and the EU have had their differences in the past. But we are allies, business partners and friends. This is the beginning of a new chapter,” Sunak said at a press conference at the announcement of the agreement with Von der Leyen at Windsor Castle. “We have so much in common… We are fighting for the same values”, said the president of the Commission, who underlined the “constructive” attitude of the Sunak government, mentioned coordination also in relation to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and suggested that there will soon be an agreement to readmit the UK to the EU program that funds research projects.

The new arrangement involves the reform of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which Boris Johnson signed in 2020 as part of the United Kingdom’s exit agreement from the EU, but which he reneged on when it began to be applied due to the political crisis in Belfast and the complaints from the most radical of his party. The protocol supposed that Northern Ireland remained for all purposes within the common market of the EU to comply with the priority objective of avoiding the physical border within the island of Ireland that would have endangered the Good Friday peace agreement in April 1998. An essential piece of the protocol is that the controls of the goods are made in the ports of Northern Ireland, but until now this also affected exchanges with the rest of the United Kingdom (England, Wales and Scotland, that is to say , Britain).

Under the new agreement that still needs approval from the European side, registered goods, plants and animals moving between Northern Ireland and Great Britain will not go through border controls – they will go into a “green” queue and the EU will receive information electronics to make sure that this is your destination. Trade with Ireland or other EU countries that passes through Northern Ireland will enter a “red” line and will be subject to the usual post-Brexit border controls, which mean more paperwork for companies and carriers since Brexit, and those Controls will continue to be made in Northern Ireland ports to avoid the feared hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The new deal will also affect the movement of pets, who now needed extra paperwork to travel between Britain and Northern Ireland.

Sunak insisted that from now on there will be “no sense of a border in the Irish Sea.” Now they had the British who have to do customs paperwork if they buy online or do not have the same products in supermarkets in Northern Ireland as in the rest of the United Kingdom.

One of the points that most irritates the conservatives in favor of a total break with the EU and the radical unionists of Northern Ireland is the supervision of the Court of Justice of the EU for the correct application of community legislation. Under the new agreement, oversight of trade rules will fall primarily to the Northern Ireland judiciary and the European court will only intervene as a last resort as arbitrator for cases affecting trade with the EU. European justice may also continue to decide on British subsidies in Northern Ireland and other tax matters, according to the Financial Times.

At the press conference, Von der Leyen stressed that the European courts will continue to be “arbitrators” of community law and pointed out that there will be “consultations” between the EU and the United Kingdom on new regulations. The Northern Ireland assembly may invoke an “emergency brake” so that new community rules are not applied in its territory.

The changes will require the approval of the Twenty-seven with the usual process requiring the agreement of governments, which have already had to make some adjustments in the application of the protocol since it came into force in 2021. In the meantime, the British Government will have to build new check-in facilities in Northern Ireland ports.

conservative crisis

Closing this chapter on Brexit may be good news for Sunak, who is dealing with the country’s depressed economy, fruit and vegetable shortages in British supermarkets, skyrocketing electricity prices and strikes in essential services every week. The prime minister also has to appease his own party’s most anti-European group in Parliament – which is demanding a vote in the House of Commons – and secure the backing of the more radical Northern Ireland unionist party (DUP), which has been blocking the formation of a new government in Belfast since May last year as a protest against the protocol. DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson said Monday his party needed “time” to look at the details of the deal. Sunak said he would give Northern Ireland parties “time” and “space” to examine the legal document.

In an attempt to present an image of institutional unity, King Charles III invited von der Leyen to have tea at Windsor Castle after consulting with the government for a date described as “a gamble” by Sunak and which angered some. conservative supporters of a total break with the EU.

The Commission President also made public gestures to underline the good relationship with the British Prime Minister, whom he called “partner and friend”. Sunak received her cordially at the door of the luxury hotel on the outskirts of Windsor where the meeting that the British Prime Minister dubbed “the Windsor framework” was held. The press conference was held at the castle, about a 15-minute drive from the hotel, in a room with walls covered in portraits of kings and queens.

Neither Sunak nor his party have, in any case, a favorable outlook ahead. According to voting intention polls, the Labor Party will win the next national elections, scheduled for next year. Most polls show a 20-point lead for Labor over the Conservatives.

Brexit is no longer such a defining issue in British politics, but it is an unpopular decision that most citizens now disavow. 56% say it was a bad decision to leave the EU compared to 32% who continue to support it, according to a YouGov poll last November (in June 2016, 52% of voters supported Brexit).

The consequences of Brexit mark the life of the country where millions of EU citizens continue to live, from the lack of tomatoes in supermarkets to the shortage of waiters, nurses, seasonal workers and carriers or the impossibility of selling all Eurostar train tickets to the mainland because of the long queues at British stations.

Tension with Brussels and Washington

The tension with the European Commission, especially during the Johnson government, was an obstacle to the application of the agreements or the adjustments in the pending fringes. In June 2022, Johnson introduced legislation to bypass the Northern Ireland protocol and the Commission announced a file to sue the UK in court for breaching an international agreement. Under the new deal between London and Brussels, the Sunak government will withdraw the legislation and the Commission will close the file.

The end of the dispute over Northern Ireland is also expected to pave the way for other pending agreements, such as the Gibraltar deal and the UK’s participation in EU-funded research programmes.

In addition, Sunak wants to improve relations with the Government of Joe Biden, who is of Irish origin and has often stressed his concern about the tension in Northern Ireland and the threat to the peace agreement. Biden is expected to travel to Dublin and Belfast in April to commemorate 25 years of the Good Friday deal, which the Clinton government also participated in negotiating.

Boris Johnson, who is trying to lead the rebellion of the tories against Sunak, he also expressed his discomfort a few days ago with the attention paid to Biden: “Fuck the Americans,” said the former British prime minister (who was born in New York and renounced his US citizenship in 2016 for tax reasons). .

Peter Westmacott, the former British ambassador to the United States, replied that “dismissing the goodwill and support of the Americans at this last critical stage in trying to make Brexit work would be highly unwise.”