By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — UK lawmakers on Wednesday (22 March) gave the green light to a major provision on an EU-UK plan to reform the Northern Ireland protocol, despite a rebellion led by former Prime Ministers Boris Johnson and Liz Truss.
The reforms to the Northern Ireland protocol, set out by UK premier Rishi Sunak and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, and known as the ‘Windsor Framework’ were carried by a large 511 to 29 majority with the support of opposition lawmakers from the Labour, Liberal Democrat and Scottish National parties.
However, former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who negotiated and passed the UK’s exit deal with the EU, and his successor Liz Truss voted against.
So, too, did the hard Brexit-supporting European Research Group of Conservative MPs, and eight MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Analysts have suggested that the opposition of Johnson and Truss, both of whom had confrontational approaches to EU-UK relations, could actually strengthen Sunak’s position.
Northern Ireland minister Steve Baker, himself a convinced Brexiteer, described Johnson as a “pound shop (Nigel) Farage”.
The revisions to the protocol would provide that goods travelling from Britain will not face customs checks if they are staying in Northern Ireland and would go through a ‘green lane’, while products which are going to be moved across the border into the Republic of Ireland would be subject to a ‘red lane’ and customs checks.
Meanwhile, in a bid to address the democratic deficit in Northern Ireland, which is still subject to EU single market law, the introduction of a new ‘Stormont brake’ could, in theory, allow the UK government to prevent new EU laws from applying to goods in Northern Ireland if requested by a third of the 108 lawmakers in the Northern Ireland assembly.
The ‘brake’ would apply to amended or replaced EU legislation in the future, giving the unionist and nationalist communities in Northern Ireland the ability to oppose a new or revised EU law.
However, the DUP has complained that it does not apply to existing EU law, while the pro-Brexit Conservative European Research Group (ERG) has described the so-called ‘Stormont brake’ as “practically useless”. The DUP has urged the UK government to re-open negotiations with the EU but there appears to be little prospect of that.
Although the vote was solely on the ‘Stormont brake’, it is likely to be the only vote in the UK parliament on the reforms and paves the way for the revised protocol to become law in the coming weeks.
On Tuesday, EU general affairs ministers backed the reforms to the protocol and the European Parliament is expected to follow suit in the coming days.
Irish MEP Seán Kelly, described the vote as a “strong UK government endorsement of the Windsor Framework”, though he added that “it is disappointing that the DUP decided to vote against it, unfortunately focusing more on politics than pragmatic solutions”.