Pleas for greater speed and transparency must be heeded if the Windsor Framework is to succeed

Photo: spoof  customs on the border

The latest verdict  on the Windsor Framework   will be seized on by some  to justify  the DUP’s reluctance to re-enter the Assembly  for a long time. By how many remains to be seen,   It doesn’t help that the sharpest criticisms which are shared by NI local  business have been aired not by them but by unionists who are acute Framework sceptics.  The verdict  comes in a report by  the House of Lords sub-committee on Europe chaired by an ex Foreign Office mandarin, Michael Jay. Most of  its members were Remainers, a fact that only adds weight to their criticisms after taking months of evidence.  While they insist the Framework  is a great improvement on the original Protocol they readily concede continuing problems that are being settled too slowly. For EU critics this is old news. But  just in case you think the unionists were crying wolf, to have them ratified so clearly by Lord Jay in the current febrile political atmosphere is – if not a  bombshell – then quite a squib,

For some businesses, the processes under the Windsor Framework will be more burdensome than under the Northern Ireland protocol [which it is due to replace], uying plants and trees from Britain will effectively be banned in Northern Ireland due to restrictions on the importation of all but a handful of species, which will only be available from registered businesses such as garden centres.

The subcommittee warns that the framework could also undermine the competitiveness of businesses in the North, which might turn into a regulatory “no man’s land” if business standards diverge from those used in the European Union.

The subcommittee didn’t see a fundamental problem here [with the Windsor Framework],” he said. “For some businesses, there are worries and concerns. We’re not saying it requires further negotiations [with the EU] but it does require more clarification. And they need to get on with it.”

Like this for instance

Northern Ireland could lose half of its veterinary medicines in a new Brexit row threatening to prolong the political stalemate in the region, it has emerged.

The BVA welcomed a grace period for the continuing movement of the products into Northern Ireland until 2025 but said unless a permanent solution was found, sales of medicines ranging from anaesthetics to vaccines for salmonella could be discontinued.

A similar problem had arisen under the original Northern Ireland protocol for hospital and pharmacy medicines, which has since been solved.

“Failure to obtain a permanent solution could see Northern Ireland lose access to 51% of the veterinary medicines it currently receives. This would affect all sectors – farm, equine, pigs, poultry, and pets – and will have significant implications on animal health and welfare, public health, trade, and the agricultural economy,”

The EU have just announced that the grace period has been extended to 2025.Some comfort indeed, but why has it taken so long?

 The  inevitable reaction came from committee member and implacable Framework critic Nigel Dodds of the DUP

It is clear that the Windsor Framework utterly fails the seven tests set by the DUP. It represents the embedding of the Irish Sea border to a greater extent than anything we have seen thus far. The original protocol was unworkable and could not be implemented without major damage to our economy. That led to grace periods and easements. Now these are to be done away with and replaced with the more onerous and burdensome Windsor Framework provisions.

As is only to be expected, our leading EU guru Katy Hayward adopts a calmer approach. Ther nub of her point in an article for Fortnight magazine is that the process takes time to implement in stages which are covered by grace periods

It will mean change, albeit offered in a way intended to cause least disruption. This will take place over the next two and a half years, according to the current timetable.  The hope of the UK and EU is that companies in GB won’t be able to blame the Protocol (or Windsor Framework as it is now to be known) for refusing to sell to Northern Ireland or quoting considerably higher costs. They can register in the new UK Internal Market Scheme to minimise customs requirements. Similarly, behind scenes arrangements with the UK Government for parcel carriers is intended allow NI customers to experience little change in business to business (B2B) or business to consumer (B2C) deliveries from GB.

The main thing that people will notice as a change is the appearance of labels on some food and drink products saying that they are not for sale in the EU. These labels are going to be rolled out in retailers across Britain who sell such goods in Northern Ireland. This is part of a condition for getting foods to consumers in NI, i.e. through ‘the green lane’, even if they haven’t been certified to meet EU standards. Many businesses bringing goods to Northern Ireland will still want to make sure that they meet EU standards and will use the so-called ‘red lane’. Goods in that lane will be subject to more checks and controls, and there will be facilities built in NI ports to facilitate that. That will be a visible change, if you hunted it out.

It isn’t red or green lanes that will determine the intensity of those border-related emotions. The fact of there being a UK-EU agreement is one thing – how it is implemented will be all-important. The texts and implications of the agreement need to be interpreted consistently, jointly and publicly. Northern Ireland’s problems are ones to be tackled collaboratively and by mutual agreement, and not by private deals or public contestation.

A ‘new era’ for a relationship comes the same way as the old one did: one day at a time, one decision at a time. To really act for the sake of this place – where political emotions still run high and democracy runs thin – the UK and EU must realise the potential of each day and each decision to make things better.

 There is here I think  from Hayward a  discreet plea similar to the Lords’ for the EU negotiations to get on with it and smooth out more frictions by the autumn . It doesn’t help  that these are conducted in private.  Although inevitable because of the technical complexities, negotiations  between officials behind closed doors allows suspicions and distrust to fester at the political level. It also exposed poor coordination between Brussels and Westminster as we saw in last week’s parcels row which produced  what looked like a swift and embarrassing government climbdown which disrupted the stately timetable of negotiations .

What can happen between now and  2025 when the  revised Protocol is due to be fully implemented? A good deal more than the present bland assurances from the EU  and Chris Heaton Harris. And reports of greater contentment from Northern Ireland’s  medium and small businesses will be crucial.

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