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The Windsor Framework

On 27 February, the UK and EU announced a new ‘Windsor Framework’ to make changes to the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

The EU flag and the Union Jack

The protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland was agreed as part of the UK–EU Withdrawal Agreement that formally took the UK out of the EU. Its purpose was to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, by requiring Northern Ireland (NI) to align with EU law in some areas, and allowing it to maintain frictionless access to the EU. However, it also meant that goods entering NI from Great Britain (GB) need to prove they comply with EU law in these areas – creating the need for checks and paperwork.

The protocol has been a continuing source of tension between the UK and EU and in Northern Ireland politics. The UK government and unionist parties in Northern Ireland argued that it created unacceptable barriers to trade within the UK internal market. The DUP first minister resigned in protest in February 2022, and then following the May assembly elections the party has refused to re-enter Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements in protest over the arrangements.

In July 2021 the UK government published its proposals for changes to the Northern Ireland protocol, and the EU responded in October with its own proposal, but talks between the two sides broke down. In June 2022 the Boris Johnson’s government introduced the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, to unilaterally override parts of the protocol and the deal was formally agreed on 24 March. The new arrangements will be phased in. The UK government has said that several schemes for moving retail food goods, plants and pets will take effect in autumn 2023.

Talks resumed in the autumn of 2022 and intensified under the new UK prime minister, Rishi Sunak. On 27 February 2023, the UK and EU announced a new ‘Windsor Framework’ to make changes to the protocol. This explainer summarises the terms of the original protocol, the problems this created, the UK–EU positions on changes and the final terms of the deal.


Original protocol: Customs declarations required on all goods moving GB-NI. The Trader Support Service (TSS) fills these out on behalf of businesses. A grace period exempts parcels from customs declarations.

UK-originating goods can qualify for tariff-free access under the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. Goods that do not qualify can still move GB–NI tariff-free if they are remaining in NI, and can prove they are not ‘at risk’ of moving into the EU. For goods that are deemed ‘at risk’, the UK government can pay tariffs on the trader’s behalf or reimburse them.

Problem: Forms create additional bureaucracy and costs for businesses. Although the TSS reduces this burden, it may only be available for a limited period of time. If the grace periods end, customs declarations will be required on each individual parcel sent from GB–NI, which means GB-based businesses may be less willing to sell to customers in NI.

Most goods are able to move GB–NI tariff-free. However, those that are considered ‘at risk’ may have to pay tariffs and await reimbursement, causing cashflow problems. Traders wanting to have their goods classified as ‘not at risk’ have to meet certain criteria, meaning some traders are unable to access the scheme.

Customs formalities would also apply to anyone sending a parcel to Northern Ireland from Great Britain and to goods being supplied into NI by a GB-based online retailer.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU proposes expanding the definition of goods ‘not at risk’ to cover more goods and reducing customs formalities, including declarations, for those goods. The arrangements would be subject to a termination clause for “non-compliance”.The UK proposes that customs formalities should only apply to goods moving GB–NI destined for the EU. Traders would be required to declare the destination of their goods and those staying in NI would not be subject to tariffs or customs declarations.

The agreement expands the definition of ‘not at risk’ to cover a wider range of businesses that will be able to use a ‘green lane’. Trusted traders that can prove that their goods are remaining in the NI are subject to simplified customs paperwork – which can be submitted on a monthly basis – and will not be subject to checks unless smuggling is suspected.

Parcels sent from GB to friends and family in NI will have no extra customs processes or costs for the sender or recipient. Online retailers will face no customs requirements when sending goods to NI consumers.

These arrangements are conditional on UK–EU data sharing.

The deal also creates special arrangements for steel tariffs aand goods whose destination isn’t clear and removes the need for any paperwork on goods moving NI–GB.

Agrifoods (SPS)

Original protocol: All goods entering NI must comply with EU law applicable under the protocol, including sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules that apply to animal and plant products. Products of animal origin must be accompanied by specialist paperwork, and subject to regular physical inspections. There is currently a grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers.

Some products plants and animal products cannot be imported into NI from GB under EU law. There is currently a grace period to allow sausages and chilled meats to continue to be traded.

Problem: Supermarkets and their representatives have raised concern that the application of EU rules will increase costs to businesses, reducing choice and availability for NI consumers and potentially making some supply chains unviable.

Trade in prohibited or restricted products such as sausages will be required to cease entirely.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU has proposed an SPS solution which would simplify paperwork and reduce — but not remove —checks for retail goods moving GB-NI that will be sold in NI. Lorries moving goods from GB-NI carrying multiple products will only need one Export Health Certificate; documentary checks would be digitised; and the frequency of physical inspections reduced.

Prohibited products produced in GB such as sausages and chilled meats could be sold in NI, but would require individual certificates and must comply with EU production requirements.

Increased flexibility would be subject to conditions, including labelling requirements and enhanced monitoring and safeguards, including a review clause.The UK would also need to enable EU access to IT systems and construct border control posts – as required in the protocol.

The UK proposes that only goods moving GB–NI that are destined for the EU should require checks and paperwork. It proposes that any goods moving GB–NI that will remain in NI and meet GB standards should be able to be sold in NI, without needing to comply with EU law or being subject to additional checks or paperwork.

Traders selling pre-packaged agri-food goods from GB–NI for final consumption in NI, e.g. supermarkets, retailers, wholesalers and caterers, will be able to join a scheme that would allow them to move goods with simplified paperwork. Only one certificate would be required per consignment (and an additional description of goods) which would be checked virtually with physical inspections only required on a small percentage of consignments (initially 8% reducing to 5% by 2025).

These goods do not need to comply with EU rules “exclusively for the protection of public health and consumers” e.g. on organics, labelling and genetic modification, only those related to animal and plant diseases. This reduces the volume of EU law traders need to comply with; certain products – including meat and dairy – would be subject to labelling requirements which the UK has said will be implemented in phases on a UK-wide basis.

A list of previously prohibited goods – including chilled meats and sausages, and plants – would be permitted to be sold in NI with simplified certification.

Those moving plants GB–NI will be able to join a scheme for simplified certification processes. Agricultural machinery will be able to moved GB–NI as long as it is labelled UK only, and certain plants previously banned for import into NI from GB such as seed potatoes, would be permitted under simplified certification.

The EU can suspend these additional flexibilities in the case of serious or repeated infringements.

VAT and excise

Original protocol: The UK is part of the UK VAT area, but EU VAT and excise rules for goods generally apply in NI.

Problem: NI is no longer part of the EU VAT margin scheme. This means that those selling second hand goods in NI sourced from GB may have to pay more VAT, which could increase prices. This issue has particularly affected the second hand car market in NI, which relies heavily on vehicles sourced from GB. Online firms have also faced separate difficulties with the new VAT arrangements. The UK was constrained in what VAT changes could apply in Northern Ireland by the need to stay within the EU VAT rate structures. It also could not apply changes to excise duties that were not in line with EU structures for excise duties. This prevented some changes to UK tax made in recent budgets applying in Northern Ireland

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU has not made any specific proposals in this area. The UK government has called for a more “flexible settlement” on VAT, allowing the UK greater freedom to set VAT and excise rates and structures in NI, subject to safeguards in the event that UK tax changes introduce significant differences in tax rules between NI and the Republic.  

The framework amends the protocol to exempt NI from certain VAT provisions. The UK will be able to apply reduced VAT rates on goods installed in immovable property, such as heat pumps.

The UK will be able to apply a different, lower excise duty rate to alcoholic drinks served in hospitality venues than those sold in supermarkets. It will be able to set the tax structure based on alcoholic strength. The UK will have to respect EU minimum duty rates.

The EU’s new VAT scheme for small enterprises will not apply in NI. The UK will need to respect EU rules on the annual turnover threshold when applying its own VAT exemption scheme for small enterprises.

A specialised committee (the ’Enhanced Coordination Mechanism’) will review the application in NI of new EU VAT and excise laws.


Original protocol: Pets such as dogs, cats and ferrets, being moved from Great Britain to Northern Ireland require an animal health certificate signed by a vet, as well as to be microchipped, vaccinated against rabies and treated for tapeworm. They may also be subject to physical checks – although these have not yet been implemented. Guide dogs are exempt from these requirements.

Problem: The current requirements make it more expensive (animal health certificates can cost over £200), complicated and time consuming to travel with pets between GB and NI.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU has not made any specific proposals in this area.

Pets that that meet existing UK legal requirements, such as microchipping for dogs, would be allowed to move freely between GB and NI without any additional requirements.

GB pet owners visiting NI will require a travel document valid for the lifetime of a pet to confirm that the pet is microchipped and will not move into the EU.

NI pet owners will continue to require an EU pet passport to move their pet to Ireland and the rest of the EU, but  still not face any requirements when travelling to and from GB.

Manufactured goods

Original protocol: All goods entering NI must comply with EU law applicable under the protocol. Products may need to undergo compliance checks, although these usually take place away from the border or through market surveillance.

Problem: Businesses wanting to produce goods for the whole of the UK may need comply with both GB and EU rules. This could lead to some businesses no longer serving the NI market.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU has not made any specific proposals in this area. The UK proposes that only goods moving GB–NI that are destined for the EU should require checks and paperwork. Any goods that meet GB standards should be able to be sold in NI without needing to comply with EU law.

Manufactured goods sold in Northern Ireland will need to continue to comply with EU law in areas covered by the protocol, although they will benefit from a reduction in customs processes.


Original protocol: NI must follow EU rules on medicines, including requirements on licensing, quality control and measures to tackle counterfeit products.

A grace period means that the full impact of these rules has not yet been felt. 

Problem: NI is highly dependent on medicines produced in GB.

Manufacturers serving both the GB and NI markets will have to comply with two different regulatory regimes, adding costs and complexity to production and distribution. This may lead some firms to stop supplying the NI market. The NI Department of Health has already been notified that firms plan to withdraw 910 medicines. Businesses that continue to serve the market may increase their prices, straining NI health budgets. 

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU plans would allow various regulatory compliance functions that must usually take place in the single market – such as quality control testing – to take place in GB, in accordance with EU law. The flexibilities would be subject to conditions. For example, products could not be sold outside of NI, and enhanced enforcement measures must be put in place. Medicines destined for NI would also need to be specially stamped and comply with EU rules on counterfeit medicines.

The UK would also still need to comply with EU law when authorising medicines for use in NI, although the EU is open to coordinating UK and EU procedures to allow manufacturers to produce a single product for both the GB and NI markets.
The UK government has said that the “simplest solution” may be to remove medicines from the protocol entirely.

The EU implemented its original proposals through EU legislation in April 2022. The Windsor Framework builds on this.

New and innovative medicines only need to be approved by the UK according to UK regulations.

The requirement packages to have a special EU stamp has been disapplied, allowing manufacturers to produce a single pack for the UK market,  but these should be labelled as UK only.

These changes apply to human medicines only, although veterinary medicines are subject to a grace period allowing UK-authorised medicines to be sold in NI until 2025.


Original protocol: Under Article 10 of the protocol, any subsidies that affect trade between NI and the EU fall within the EU state aid regime, and subsidies over a certain amount will require approval from the European Commission. Subsidies that fall outside the scope of article 10 must comply with the UK subsidy control regime.

Problem: Subsidies to NI businesses may need to comply with the EU regime, adding more complexity to the system.

The broadly drawn provision may also capture some UK-wide or GB-only subsidies. The UK and the EU published a statement saying that Article 10 would only apply to subsidies with a “genuine and direct link” to NI, but the underlying legal position remains a point of interpretation.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU has not put forward any proposals in this area.

The UK argues that the subsidy control commitments in the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement and the UK’s implementation of its own subsidy control regime have made article 10 redundant.

The UK government said they would be prepared to establish “enhanced processes” for subsidies of a “significant scale” relating to NI, such as referral powers or enhanced consultations to address EU concerns. 

The agreement builds on the previous joint statement setting out further tests that should be met in order for subsidies to be considered to have a “genuine and direct” link with NI to prevent 'reach back' from the EU regime to UK-wide or GB-only subsidies. Only subsidies that have a material effect for beneficiaries in Northern Ireland should be subject to EU state aid rules.

The exact legal status of this declaration is unclear but it states that the European Commission and UK should publish further guidance.


Original protocol: The application of EU law in NI is subject to EU oversight. The commission can take action against the UK government for non-compliance, as if it were a member state, including taking it to the European Court of Justice.

Problem: The UK government argues that the ECJ’s role in resolving disputes under the protocol is inappropriate and means problems are escalated too quickly to an adversarial setting. However, few traders have raised the role of the ECJ as a barrier to trade between GB and NI.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU has not put forward any proposals in this area.

The dispute settlement process should be based on normal treaty arrangements, with governance and disputes managed jointly between the UK and EU and disagreements ultimately resolved through international arbitration.

Where EU rules are applied in NI, there should be robust mechanisms to ensure that their implications for NI are considered and the views of those in NI are taken into account. 

The framework contains a commitment to developing existing UK–EU structures for overseeing the agreement, including establishing a new specialised committee for goods, and a commitment to involve NI stakeholders more in the Joint Consultative Working Group (JCWG). Both sides commit to using these to address issues that may arise, share regulatory developments and “anticipate and discuss any practical difficulties at stake”.

There is no change to the role of the ECJ. The UK and EU have committed to resolving issues concerning the protocol through attempts at dialogue within existing UK-EU structures.

Role of the Northern Ireland institutions

Original protocol: Under the terms of the protocol over 300 EU directives and regulations will continue to apply in NI and as the EU institute changes to these, NI will be required to ‘keep pace’ and make corresponding changes to its statute book. Discussions around the protocol take place through the Joint Committee, specialised Committee and the JCWG – the UK government can decide to include NI representatives in its delegation.

Problem: As NI is no longer part of a member state, there are no formal opportunities for it to influence EU policy making and therefore the rules that will apply to it. Some have argued that this creates a ‘democratic deficit’ that needs to be addressed.

EU position

UK position

What does the framework say?

The EU maintains that the current arrangements provide various mechanisms to involve NI authorities and it is for the UK government to support NI authorities to engage in these processes.

The EU has proposed reforms to existing engagement mechanisms and the creation of new fora to help NI stakeholders, such as civic groups and businesses, to provide a more structured dialogue with EU officials in key areas covered by the protocol.

The European Commission has also proposed new transparency measures including a website documenting EU legislation applicable in NI and removing the confidentiality requirement for some discussion int he Joint Consultative Working Group.

The commission also plans to hold discussions with the European Parliament about how an NI sub-structure could be built into the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly.
The UK government argues that where EU rules are applied in NI, there should be robust mechanisms to ensure that their implications for NI are considered and the views of those in NI are taken into account.  

The deal creates a new ”Stormont Brake” that would give the Northern Ireland assembly an opportunity to object to changes to EU law that would have previously applied automatically under the protocol. The brake can be triggered by 30 MLAs from two political parties – and should only be used in exceptional circumstances and after MLAs have had substantive discussions with the UK government, business groups and civil society.

MLAs must give an explanation for use of the brake, and must demonstrate that there is something ”significantly different” about the new rule, and that it would have “a significant impact specific to everyday life” that is liable to persist.

If these conditions are met, the act will be suspended. The UK and EU must then enter discussions on whether to re-adopt the act. The UK will not agree to do so unless approved by a cross-community vote in the Northern Ireland assembly, exception for in exceptional circumstances, or if the EU rule will not create barriers to GB-NI trade.

Any dispute about the use of the brake would be resolved through the Withdrawal agreement dispute resolution mechanism than the ECJ.

What is the position of Northern Ireland political parties?

Northern Ireland political parties have emphasised that they will need to examine the full details of the framework before supporting or condemning it. But they have previously stated what they are looking for in a new deal.

The DUP says it will only support a deal if it considers that it meets seven tests 19 Democratic Unionist Party, ‘DUP Leader announces Seven Tests for HMG plans on NI Protocol’, 15 July 2021, :

  1. NI is entitled to the same trade privileges as the rest of the UK (Article 6 of the Act of Union)
  2. NI consumers and businesses are not forced to purchase certain goods from the EU and not GB
  3. No “border in the Irish Sea”
  4. The people of NI have “a say in making the laws which govern them”
  5. No checks on goods going from NI to GB or from GB to NI and remaining in NI – except for pre-Brexit checks
  6. No new regulatory borders between NI and the rest of the UK (unless agreed by the NI executive and assembly)
  7. Consent from a majority of NI’s citizens would be required for any diminution of its status as part of the UK (as per the Belfast Agreement)

Following the 2022 NI assembly election, the DUP refused to nominate a deputy first minister unless there were significant changes to the protocol – leaving the executive unappointed.

Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader Doug Beattie has said his party will assess whether the framework protects NI’s place within the UK’s internal market. 20 Ulster Unionist Party, ‘We will study the detail of new Protocol deal – Beattie’, 27 February 2023, Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister criticised the deal for not substantially altering the terms of the protocol. 21 BBC News, ‘Brexit: DUP will come to a “collective decision” on Windsor Framework’, 28 February 2023,

Nationalist parties including Sinn Féin, the largest party in Stormont, have largely welcomed the deal’s retained access to the European single market without a hardening of the Irish border. 22 Rory Carroll and Lisa O’Carroll, ‘DUP leader keeps hope of protocol deal on track as he declares “progress” in talks’, The Guardian, 17 February 2023, The SDLP has expressed concerns about potential “vexatious use” of the Stormont Brake damaging access to the single market. 23 House of Commons, Hansard, ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’, 27 February 2023, col. 593 The cross-community Alliance Party has broadly welcomed the framework but aims to ensure that the Stormont Brake does not cause instability in the NI assembly. 24 House of Commons, Hansard, ‘Northern Ireland Protocol’, 27 February 2023, col. 587

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