The Windsor Framework – a “Decisive Breakthrough” 

3 March 2023

After months of negotiations and weeks of rumours that the EU and UK were on the brink of a deal, Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen and UK Prime Minister, Rishi Sunak, announced this week that an agreement “in principle” on the Northern Ireland Protocol had been reached. Following weeks of technical talks, which were kept very secretive with no leaks emerging ahead of the announcement, the so-called “Windsor Framework” was announced on 27 February. 

The newly announced Windsor Framework, which has been agreed upon in principle, will replace the Northern Ireland Protocol. The Northern Ireland Protocol, announced as part of the Brexit Agreement, set out the trading regime for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Under the Protocol, checks were required on goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland (NI), in order to preserve the integrity of the EU’s Single Market. The Protocol has been the source of great tension in EU-UK relations with unionist parties in NI continuing to refuse to support the protocol, arguing that it treats NI differently to the rest of the UK. Meanwhile, businesses complained of the unnecessary bureaucracy the Protocol introduced. The Windsor Framework seeks to address these issues, restore the devolved government in NI, which collapsed last year after the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) walked out in protest over how the protocol creates a de facto border in the Irish sea, and improve EU-UK relations.

Announcing the agreement, Commission President von der Leyen and PM Sunak hailed the Windsor Framework as a “decisive breakthrough”, and one that will allow for a stronger UK and EU partnership. The Windsor Framework will ensure the smooth flow of trade within the UK by introducing a green and red lane system. Under this new system, goods destined for NI will travel through a new green lane with a separate red lane for all goods at risk of moving into the EU. This will significantly reduce bureaucracy for green lane products. The agreement will also give Stormont a say over EU rules. The so-called Stormont brake will give the power sharing institutions the power to block laws from applying in Northern Ireland – a move that “safeguards sovereignty” for Northern Ireland. A clear process will be established under which Stormont will be able to pull an “emergency brake” for changes to EU rules on goods that would have a significant and lasting effect on everyday life in Northern Ireland. If the emergency brake is pulled, the UK government will have a veto. 

The day after announcing the deal PM Sunak travelled to Belfast to meet with political party representatives and business leaders. The Framework, Sunak stressed, would leave Northern Ireland enjoying the best of both worlds, having access to the UK market and EU single market. 

The deal has received great support since its announcement with US President Joe Biden chiming in to say he is now confident the “people and businesses of Northern Ireland will be able to take full advantage of the economic opportunities created by this stability and certainty.”  Tánaiste Micheál Martin also welcomed the agreement and said he hoped the announcement would help “the EU and UK to open a new chapter in their relationship”. 

All eyes are now on the DUP to see if the deal is enough to encourage the party to re-enter Stormont. The party has said it will take time to analyse the fine print and come to a “collective decision”. The DUP is under increasing pressure from the other Northern Irish political parties to support the deal, with Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald arguing there is “no justification for the DUP to continue its reckless and damaging boycott of democracy”. Meanwhile, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), Doug Beatie, has said that it would be “disingenuous” for any party to indicate it would take weeks or months to respond to the Windsor Framework – “people need to show the courage of their convictions, look at the deal, come up with your analysis and make your pitch”.