A UK-EU agreement intended to make trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland flow more easily has been given a cautious welcome by organisations representing the UK food industry.
The Provision Trade Federation described it as “positive news for the food and drink industry in many areas” while the Food and Drink Federation (FDF) said “any deal to improve the movement of goods is welcome”.
The Windsor Framework, signed off yesterday (27 February) by UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, will replace the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Brexit arrangement that effectively meant the province remained part of the European Union for trading purposes.
It created a ‘border in the Irish Sea’ to ensure no hard border was necessary between Northern Ireland and its southern neighbour and EU member state the Republic of Ireland. There have been fears a continuation of the Protocol would have threatened the Good Friday Agreement, which ended a 25-year period of violence in the province known as ‘the Troubles’.
However, the Protocol meant that goods exported from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland faced border checks, additional duties and paperwork, vets checking some meat products and a ban on others, including sausages.
Announcing the new legal framework, Sunak said: “This means that if food is available on supermarket shelves in Great Britain, then it will be available on supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland. This means we have removed any sense of a border in the Irish Sea.”
Brussels and London said they were beginning “a new chapter” in their relationship after striking the deal.
Under former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the UK had threatened to override parts of the existing deal – which he had agreed – suggesting, as did Unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, it was not only burdensome but treated the province differently to the rest of the country. Retailers had warned of supply chain disruption under Protocol rules.
The Windsor Framework will mean goods from Britain destined for Northern Ireland will travel through a new ‘green lane’, with a separate ‘red lane’ for goods at risk of moving onto the Republic of Ireland and therefore the EU.
The UK government said products coming into Northern Ireland through the green lane would see checks and paperwork significantly reduced and that the province would benefit from having the same tax policies, food, drink and medicines as the rest of the UK.
New data-sharing and labelling arrangements will be used to oversee the new system.
The UK government said: “A single supermarket truck which previously had to provide 500 certificates can now instead make a straightforward commitment that goods will stay in Northern Ireland. Retailers will mark goods as ‘not for EU’, with a phased rollout of this requirement to give them time to adjust.”
Chilled meats, including sausages and minced meat, which were banned under the old Protocol, will be able to move freely into Northern Ireland like other retail food products, as will seed potatoes.
European Court of Justice interpretation and oversight of food safety issues has been removed.
The implementation of the agreement will be phased in this year and into 2024.
Reacting to the signing of the deal, Rod Addy, director general of the Provision Trade Federation, said: “The requirement for special labelling for goods destined for Northern Ireland, designating them ‘not for EU’ will entail some disruption for food and drink producers. However, promised transitional support from Government for this is good news, as is the phased implementation of this labelling, from 1 October 2023 through to 2025 on current timescales.
“Beyond that, this agreement is positive news for the food and drink industry in many areas. It ensures no ban on UK products such as sausages and minced meat destined for NI.
“However, as with so many things over the last few years, how the deal is implemented over the coming months will be fundamental to its early success. For this to happen, Whitehall and the UK Parliament will need to work closely with all parts of the trade to deliver pragmatic solutions that work for everyone.”
Dominic Goudie, the head of international trade at FDF, said: “We are pleased that an agreement has been reached on the Northern Ireland Protocol. Any deal to improve the movement of goods is welcome, after the significant uncertainty food and drink manufacturers have faced over the past two years.
“We look forward to seeing the details of this agreement and how it will provide a pragmatic and business-friendly solution that will ensure Northern Irish consumers can continue to enjoy the full choice of quality UK products, without facing higher prices.”
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union, said: “While we look through the details of the new agreement, we welcome progress on agreeing a long-term arrangement that ensures smooth trade in agri-food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
“This deal should help overcome some of the practical issues which have arisen from how the Northern Ireland Protocol has been implemented so far, such as costly certification, physical inspections and even the prohibition on trade in certain products such as seed potatoes.
“I also hope this will act as a turning point to establish a more constructive trading relationship between Great Britain and the rest of the EU.”
A spokesperson for the British Meat Processors Association said: “Rishi Sunak’s Windsor Framework not only provides clarity and surety for companies carrying out trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but also represents a big step forward for the UK’s trading relationship with the EU.
“While much of the operational detail on how exactly the new system will work is yet to be published, the benefits are clear. The movement of retail packed meat products destined for supermarket shelves or other consumer-facing organisations like schools, prisons and foodservice will essentially be able to return to a more normal delivery system via the new green lanes. Although suppliers will still need to be registered as a trusted trader and notify when goods have been delivered to their destination, much of the bureaucracy will be removed.
“Perhaps the thing that is most encouraging is that, in negotiating the Windsor Framework, Mr Sunak and his team have provided a blueprint for future collaborative and productive trade negotiations with Europe.”