On 23rd June 2016 voters in the United Kingdom decided in a referendum to leave the European Union. The UK officially notified the European Council of its intention to leave on 29th March 2017.
The notification triggered Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union and paved the way for negotiations on a Withdrawal Agreement, which came into force on 1st February 2020. This was followed by a transition period that allowed for an orderly UK exit and provided time to negotiate a new EU/UK partnership.
The transition period ended on 31st December 2020 and relationships between the European Union and the United Kingdom are now mainly based on four treaties, most notably the Withdrawal Agreement and the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
Implementation and interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement is overseen by an EU-UK Joint Committee made up of representatives at ministerial, Commissioner or senior official level.
There are also a number of specialised joint committees that deal with specific aspects of the agreement, such as the rights of citizens and the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.
Following its withdrawal from the European Union, the UK has lost the benefits it had as an EU Member State and it is no longer a part of the Single Market or Customs Union, and nor is it covered by the EU’s international agreements.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland
The Withdrawal Agreement includes a binding Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland that’s primarily designed to prevent a hard border on the island.
The protocol was a major priority during Withdrawal Agreement negotiations and a creative, workable solution to protect the all-island economy, the Single Market and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement was required.
Brexit has made frictionless trade between the EU and the UK impossible, but the Protocol is a complex system that allows Northern Ireland to remain in the UK customs territory and, at the same time, benefit from access to the Single Market for the movement of goods.
It contains provisions that protect unique circumstances on the island of Ireland, such as continuation of the Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK.
It also allows for North-South cooperation in areas of mutual benefit, such as agriculture, transport, education, tourism, and the Single Electricity Market.
The PEACE funding programmes that support peace and reconciliation and promote economic and social progress in Northern Ireland and the Border Regions of Ireland are also continuing under Withdrawal Agreement commitments.
Despite the EU and the UK reaching agreement on the Protocol, problems emerged when it came to applying the new rules.
Complicated customs checks on goods imported from Britain but destined to stay in Northern Ireland were causing frustration on the ground, and there were issues with measures regarding agri-food, medicines, State aid and VAT.
However, the Protocol was designed to be amendable so that unforeseen challenges to its implementation can be addressed by EU-UK Joint Committees.
This allowed for further EU-UK negotiations, which in March 2023 led to the formal adoption of an agreement called the Windsor Framework that addresses practical difficulties in implementing parts of the Protocol.
The Framework introduces the concept of green and red lanes to reduce the number of checks required on goods arriving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland ports.
British goods staying in Northern Ireland will use green lanes reserved for pre-registered ‘trusted traders’, who face minimal paperwork and no routine physical checks.
Goods moving south and into the Single Market will be directed to red lanes and subjected to customs processes and other checks.
The UK is granting EU officials near real-time access to its computerised customs systems and databases so the Single Market continues to be fully protected.
Apart from the Protocol, Ireland has received EU assistance to help mitigate the financial consequences of Brexit through the Brexit Adjustment Reserve. This €5.37 billion funding source provides support to the Member States, regions and sectors worst affected by Brexit.
Ireland was allocated in the region of €1 billion, which is 20% of the entire reserve and the biggest share of the fund. It received €361.5 million in 2021, €276.7 million in 2022 and €282.2 million during 2023.
“The Windsor Framework was made possible by genuine political will and hard work guided by the fundamental principle that the interests and needs of people should always come first. Supporting and protecting the hard-earned gains of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement was the prerequisite of our endeavour. Today, our achievement allows us to put forward definitive solutions that work for people and businesses in Northern Ireland and that protect our Single Market. It also allows us to turn the page towards a bilateral relationship that mirrors the one of close allies standing shoulder to shoulder in times of crisis.”
President Ursula von der Leyen - 27/02/2023
Protocol/Windsor Framework highlights
- The protocol guarantees that there won’t be a hard border on the island of Ireland, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls.
- Goods entering Northern Ireland from Britain that are destined for the EU or at risk of entering the EU are subject to full checks and controls. However, pre-registered ‘trusted traders’ will undergo minimal processes.
- EU officials will have near real-time access to UK systems and databases so risk assessments on imported goods can be performed, and trusted trader schemes will be subject to robust monitoring.
- The Windsor Framework allows these schemes to be suspended or terminated in certain circumstances to safeguard the Single Market.
- The Windsor Framework also sees more consultation and engagement between Northern Ireland stakeholders, including citizens and businesses, and EU-UK Joint Committees.
- EU animal and plant health rules still apply on agri-foods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, but the UK will deploy fast-track, permanent sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) inspection facilities at Northern Ireland ports by 2025, and provide EU officials with access to their databases.
- Products shipped from Britain but destined to remain in Northern Ireland will be labelled ‘not for EU’ to help ensure they don’t enter the Single Market.
- Pet owners can travel with their microchipped pets from Great Britain to Northern Ireland with a simple travel document, and a declaration that the pet will not go to the EU.
- A last-resort mechanism called the Stormont Brake allows the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly to prevent the application of new or amended EU laws. The mechanism can only be triggered if at least a third of Assembly members from at least two political parties request it.
- Implementation of the Protocol is overseen by UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committees. Bodies established through the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement such as the North-South Ministerial Council, feed into the work of these committees.
- While much has been done to mitigate the impact of Brexit for Irish businesses and citizens through the Protocol, some consequences can’t be avoided.
- Online consumers may have to pay VAT, Customs Duty or both when purchasing from the UK, depending on the value and origin of the goods.
- EU consumer protection legislation may no longer apply when buying from the UK. Instead, consumer rights are set down in UK law.
- Irish businesses importing or exporting goods to the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) now need to register for Customs.
- Mobile phone roaming charges for Irish customers travelling to the UK are no longer guaranteed by EU regulations.
- The Common Travel Area between Ireland and the UK continues to be recognised along with the rights it grants to Irish and British citizens. This includes the right for Irish and UK citizens to live, travel, work and study within the Common Travel Area. However, these rights do not extend to EU citizens resident in Ireland.
- There are no routine passport controls in operation for Irish and UK citizens travelling in either direction. However, you may be asked by an immigration officer to prove you are a citizen of Ireland or the UK, so all citizens should carry a passport.
- Goods moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland will not have any Customs, tariffs, or other restrictions placed on them.
EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement
There are now four treaties that govern relations between the EU and the UK. Most people will already have heard of the Withdrawal Agreement, but the EU-UK Security of Information Agreement and the EU-UK Agreement on cooperation in the safe and peaceful uses of nuclear energy are also both now in force.
The former sets out rules around the exchange of classified information that can help strengthen security and prevent acts of terrorism, while the latter ensures safety and collaboration when it comes to nuclear energy.
The treaty most citizens and businesses are being impacted by is the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement. It includes a new Free Trade Agreement, with ambitious cooperation on economic, social, environmental and fisheries issues.
It doesn’t match the level of economic integration that existed while the UK was an EU Member State but it does provide for zero tariffs and zero quotas on all goods that comply with the appropriate rules of origin.
It includes commitments from both sides to maintain high levels of protection in areas such as climate change, social and labour rights, tax transparency and the use of State aid to provide unfair market advantage.
There is also a new framework for the joint management of fish stocks in EU and UK waters and the agreement allows for continued and sustainable air, road, rail and maritime connectivity.
The Trade and Cooperation Agreement includes new arrangements for law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal and civil law matters. This security partnership recognises the need for strong cooperation between national police and judicial authorities, in particular for fighting and prosecuting cross-border crime and terrorism.
The treaty has a dedicated chapter on governance that provides clarity on how the Trade and Cooperation Agreement will be operated and controlled. The EU-UK Joint Partnership Council makes sure the Agreement is properly applied and interpreted, and discusses all contentious issues as they arise.
There couldn’t have been a Withdrawal Agreement without the Protocol for Ireland and Northern Ireland, but another top EU priority in the negotiations was protecting citizens who have built their lives on the basis of rights flowing from UK membership of the EU.
While Northern Ireland is no longer part of the EU, its people who choose to be Irish citizens are still EU citizens. That means they can continue to move and live freely within the EU and the UK has committed to upholding their rights.
The Withdrawal Agreement provides legal certainty for EU citizens residing in the UK, as well as UK nationals who were registered as residing in one of the 27 EU Member States at the end of the transitional period on 31st January 2020.
It also protects their family members (such as current spouses and registered partners, parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren and people in existing durable relationships) who are granted rights under EU law to join their family member in the future.
The conditions of residence for these citizens are the same as those under current EU law on free movement. In general, this means citizens must be workers or self-employed, have sufficient resources and sickness insurance or have already acquired the right of permanent residence.
The implementation and application of citizens' rights in the EU is monitored by the European Commission, and in the UK by an independent monitoring authority.
The rights of Irish citizens to live, work and access public services in the UK are protected under the Common Travel Area arrangement.
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