The issues with the old Protocol did not, though, solely concern trade frictions on the movement of goods. It disrupted trade between Northern Ireland and its most important market in Great Britain; reduced the availability of goods; and treated Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the United Kingdom in areas at the heart of lives and livelihoods – whether tax and health services, the movement of people with their pets, or the ability to get plants and seeds at a local garden centre. For many individual citizens and businesses, the application of the old Protocol felt as if it was pushing Northern Ireland and Great Britain apart, contrary to its integral place in our Union. At the same time it had no mechanisms to manage any future changes in UK and EU rules. That is addressed within the new agreement, with a new framework which delivers solutions that will protect choice for consumers whilst also working for businesses in Northern Ireland.
In doing so we have listened carefully to traders in Northern Ireland on the best way forward: recognising that we need to safeguard the UK internal market and the availability of critical goods; while avoiding duplication for traders and preserving market access benefits for Northern Ireland’s crucial agricultural and manufacturing sectors. The agreement therefore establishes new arrangements in which UK, not EU, standards and regulations apply for essential retail trade and tax – disapplying over 1,700 pages of EU law in the process, and the ECJ oversight which comes with it – whilst also preserving full and unrestricted access for Northern Ireland businesses to both their most important market in Great Britain and the whole of the EU Single Market. This is unprecedented: the disapplication of core parts of the EU customs code and SPS rules for internal UK trade, as above, combined with the changes we have secured in carving out EU VAT, excise and medicines rules, has never before been achieved for any region or country that has also secured full access to the EU market.
VAT and excise
Under the old Protocol, EU VAT and excise rules apply in Northern Ireland, strictly in relation to goods, in order to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland. While UK authorities have ensured that this has avoided burdens on East-West movements in practice, those rules have prevented the Government from applying VAT and excise changes UK-wide, with future EU rule changes likely to increase that divergence
To address this, the agreement secures substantive, legally binding changes in the new arrangements, ensuring that Northern Ireland will benefit from the same VAT and alcohol taxes as apply in the rest of the United Kingdom.
It specifically amends the legal text of the treaty to provide these critical freedoms and to lock in flexibility for the future. Under these arrangements, the Government will restore the integrity of the UK internal market and UK VAT and excise area.
- This will mean that straight away, through changes to Annex 3 of the original Protocol, the Government can bring forward legislation to ensure that Northern Ireland will be able to apply zero rates of VAT to the installation of energy-saving materials such as heat pumps and solar panels – rectifying the disparity between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
- And it ensures that reforms to alcohol duties, due to take effect this summer, will apply right across the UK from the outset – meaning cheaper pints in pubs and a clearer set of duties overall.
The agreement also makes further changes to permanently protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s VAT area:
- It removes the limit on the number of reduced and zero rates in Northern Ireland, ensuring parity across the United Kingdom.
- It delivers full flexibility on rates in the future, by establishing new categories that can be applied for VAT purposes where goods are consumed in Northern Ireland.
- It protects Northern Ireland’s second-hand car market into the future with a new scheme to take effect from 1 May 2023, ending two years of uncertainty for traders and consumers.
- It exempts Northern Ireland businesses from a range of bureaucratic EU rules: saving 2,000 Northern Ireland businesses from needing to register for VAT under a 2025 EU Directive; and avoiding a range of other new burdens on SMEs, and divergence with Great Britain.
- And it establishes a brand new mechanism, first proposed in the UK’s 2021 Command Paper, enabling the UK and EU to look at future EU rule changes and make further legally binding changes to resolve any distortive impacts that new EU red tape could cause.
Overall these changes to the text of the original Protocol guarantee Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s VAT and excise area, while still maintaining frictionless arrangements for those businesses trading with the EU – granting Northern Ireland businesses the ability to benefit from new UK changes, and ensuring that Northern Ireland households can benefit from the UK’s Brexit
The original Protocol applied all EU rules and authorisation requirements for medicines, notwithstanding that medicine supply is an essential state This meant that for novel medicines, including innovative cancer drugs, it was the European Medicines Agency (EMA), not the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), which approved medicines for the Northern Ireland market. This failed to recognise or accommodate for the fact that the overwhelming flow of medicines to Northern Ireland is from Great Britain, with medicines provided for the UK market as a whole.
The EU made a series of changes to its rules last year to address some of these issues, addressing regulatory requirements which prevented medicines flows and supporting the MHRA’s continued ability to authorise generic drugs under a single licence for the whole United Kingdom. This, combined with the UK’s own Northern Ireland Medicines Authorisation Route (NIMAR), has ensured that medicines have continued to flow uninterrupted into Northern But these arrangements were not a complete solution for the long-term and did not address the EMA’s role in licensing novel medicines, leaving Northern Ireland exposed to divergence as UK and EU rules changed into the future.
This uncertainty, as well as the requirement for Northern Ireland drugs to meet various EU labelling requirements, risked discontinuations if firms were unwilling to maintain two sets of labels and packs for Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This was not a sustainable way forward, and has been addressed by this deal.
Under the agreement, we have listened to the needs of industry and the healthcare sector and secured an unprecedented settlement that provides a comprehensive carve-out from EU rules: fully safeguarding the supply of medicines from Great Britain into Northern Ireland, and once again asserting the primacy of UK regulation. As a result, it will be for the MHRA to approve all drugs for the whole UK market.
This will enable all types of medicines to be supplied in single packs, within UK supply chains, with a single licence for the whole UK. This will provide a long-term, durable basis for medicines supplies into Northern Ireland.
- Specifically, the whole of the Falsified Medicines Directive has been disapplied for medicines supplied to Northern Ireland, ending the unnecessary situation in which – even with grace periods – wholesalers and pharmacies in Northern Ireland were expected to keep barcode scanners to check individual labels.
- And for the provision of innovative drugs to patients, Northern Ireland will be reintegrated back into a UK-only regulatory environment, with the European Medicines Agency removed from having any role.
- This responds to the overwhelming calls from industry for stability and certainty, and can give reassurance to patients and clinicians in Northern Ireland well into the future.
At the same time, the agreement safeguards frictionless access to the EU market for world-leading Northern Ireland pharmaceutical and medical technology firms. This pragmatic dual-regulatory system protects business, patients and healthcare services, and reflects that it is an essential state function to maintain and oversee the supply of medicines within the whole United Kingdom.
Plants, seeds, machinery and trees
The Protocol put a series of certification requirements, checks and prohibitions in place for plants and plant products. This has meant £150 certificates for individual movements, with many products such as seed potatoes and apple trees unable to move under any circumstances. This did not reflect any real-world biosecurity risk and had real impacts on longstanding flows to Northern Ireland gardeners, farmers, garden centres and environmental projects. This has been addressed comprehensively through the deal.
As a result of this agreement, plants and seeds staying in Northern Ireland will move from Great Britain on a virtually identical basis to those moving elsewhere within the UK:
- Instead of full EU certification, all plants and seeds will move under the existing UK-wide plant passport scheme, in line with traders throughout the UK. That means rather than paying £150 per movement into Northern Ireland, growers and businesses can pay £120 a year to be part of the UK scheme, as they did before the Protocol came into force.
- Previously banned seed potatoes will once again be available from other parts of the UK while remaining prohibited in Ireland.
- We have also paved the way to remove bans on 11 native British and other commercially important plant species by the next planting season, as industry has called for – including those trees that were prevented from moving to mark the Queen’s Platinum This will unlock tree and shrub movements between the UK and EU overall.
- And we will remove needless certification requirements for used agricultural and forestry machinery, with the only requirement now being a single, self-applied label to indicate the machinery will not move into the EU.
This will put Northern Ireland back on a level playing field with growers, gardeners, farmers and others right across the UK, allowing long-established trading patterns to resume.
Under the original Protocol, EU state aid rules are applied in cases where there is any aid provided to companies that could ‘affect trade’ in goods and electricity between Northern Ireland and the EU. While intended to apply narrowly, the potential breadth of the wording has risked ‘reach back’ – the much broader application of those rules in cases where there is only a theoretical or highly tangential link between aid to a company in Great Britain and potential trade on the island of Ireland. Although this has not prevented the Government providing essential support to Northern Ireland through the pandemic and energy crisis, it has created a broader concern that there may be underlying ‘chilling effects’ on businesses or public authorities, discouraging investment or causing them to reduce trade with Northern Ireland.
This agreement removes that risk, further constraining the limited circumstances in which the initial concept of the old Protocol applies to subsidies, preserving the functioning of the UK internal market:
- It imposes a stringent set of tests to ensure that there must be a proven real, genuine and material link to Northern Ireland’s trade with the EU for any proposed aid to even be in scope. This rules out all but the largest subsidies and those where firms have no material presence in the Northern Ireland market, keeping the overwhelming majority of subsidies to companies in Great Britain solely under the UK’s own subsidy control regime at a stroke.
- This confines the application of existing Protocol rules to cases where there is a genuine, material effect on trade between Northern Ireland and the EU – recognising, as we always have done, that the Protocol should apply only in limited circumstances where necessary to avoid trade distortions.
- And even for those cases where it does apply, in practice there will remain a host of exemptions which allow aid to be granted without any need for notification or approval – covering more than 98% of Northern Ireland subsidies in practice based on past trends.
- The agreement also retains the important flexibilities available to traders in Northern Ireland – including uniquely generous agricultural subsidy arrangements where Northern Ireland is fully outside the CommonAgricultural Policy, with the Northern Ireland Executive empowered to design schemes that work best for Northern Ireland subject only to basic underlying World Trade Organisation rules.
This addresses the risks of ‘reach back’ and chilling effects on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, providing more certainty for both beneficiaries and aid granters in Great Britain, and supporting trade within the UK internal market with Northern Ireland. This deals with any concerns around the operation of Protocol rules in real-world terms, ensuring that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) serves as the overall framework governing subsidy control issues between the UK and EU, as we have always argued should be the case.
Under the old Protocol each movement of a pet into Northern Ireland would have required an individual certificate and new, needless rabies jabs and other treatments for animals, despite Great Britain being rabies-free for more than a century. While these requirements have been pragmatically enforced, many pet owners have felt bound to seek out these expensive treatments to the detriment of animal welfare.
This agreement ends any uncertainty, removing costly, harmful and unnecessary processes for pet movements into Northern Ireland, – allowing pet movements to continue easily and recognising the United Kingdom’s rabies- and tapeworm-free
- For Northern Ireland pet owners, there will be no new requirements of any kind. Pet owners can come and go from Great Britain without ever having to think about any paperwork or process. Northern Ireland pet owners will of course continue to be able to move their pet to Ireland and the rest of the EU with an EU pet passport, though unlike internal Great Britain-Northern Ireland movements this will continue to include a requirement for rabies
- For pet owners visiting Northern Ireland from Great Britain but not travelling on to Ireland, the only requirement will be to confirm that the pet is microchipped and will not move into the EU (where the same certificate and health requirements will remain). This will be in the form of a travel document issued for the lifetime of a pet, available online and electronically in a matter of minutes; or an equally seamless process built into the booking process for a flight or ferry.
- This avoids cumbersome bureaucracy and unnecessary checks, meaning efforts can be focused on real-world welfare, disease or smuggling risks.
- And it answers the concerns of pet owners and associations in full, ensuring that pet movements can continue easily as they did prior to Brexit.
We will work with ferry companies to ensure that their online guidance reflects these new arrangements and gives travellers confidence to travel once again with their pets. Also as part of these arrangements EU Member States, including Ireland, will be required to ensure appropriate deterrence for pet owners moving animals into Ireland from Great Britain via Northern Ireland in contravention of the terms above. The operation of checks North-South on the island of Ireland will, though, as with Great Britain-Northern Ireland movements, operate on a risk and intelligence-led
The original Protocol also required a range of onerous authorisations and movement conditions for veterinary medicines entering Northern Ireland. These failed to take account of the overwhelming reliance of Northern Ireland on veterinary medicines from Great Britain, putting more than half of product lines at risk. As part of the agreement, we have put in place a grace period arrangement until the end of 2025 which enables veterinary medicines authorised or approved in the UK, or which are moved via Great Britain, to continue to be placed on the market in Northern This safeguards those supplies, while providing time to establish a long-term solution which maintains the uninterrupted flow of veterinary medicines into Northern Ireland from Great Britain as is the case now. In so doing the Government is clear that the only practical solution will be a solution, as with human medicines, to guarantee the existing and long-established flows of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland on which so many people and businesses rely.
Supporting the UK internal market for the long term
Taken together, the agreement puts a fundamentally new framework in place of that in the old Protocol, with new arrangements which ensure unique UK internal market arrangements instead of the strict application of the EU regime. This has an important read across to the overall governance and durability of the
- In the areas of food and drink safety, for example, it will be laws passed in the United Kingdom, or case law set by UK courts, not the ECJ, which will determine the rules that apply for the critical flow of trade from Great Britain that is the predominant source of grocery retail supplies.
- Similarly, in relation to VAT and excise, Budget measures announced by the Chancellor will apply UK-wide in the future, including to Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland consumers would consequently be automatically protected and part of the UK’s internal market for their everyday life, whether saving money on a pint of beer, buying Cumberland sausages in a supermarket or visiting a garden centre for seeds and plants. In all these cases, the same consumer just across the border in Ireland would face a different set of rules and a different set of products on shelves, in pubs or at a garden centre – with different and significantly more onerous requirements to procure them. Critically the experience of the Northern Ireland consumer would be protected irrespective of future developments in EU law, or the case law of the ECJ.
These protections are also not static, with specific recognition in the agreement of the need to monitor, and as necessary adapt to, other changes in the future to continue to protect the UK internal market.
- Where future EU rule changes could have damaging impacts, we have provided the Northern Ireland Assembly with a comprehensive new mechanism, the Stormont Brake, that is set out below.
- As VAT and excise rules are changed, as noted above there will also be a dedicated coordination mechanism for the UK and EU to consider their impact on the functioning of the UK VAT and excise area, with new powers to make changes to avoid new burdens;
- There is also an important mechanism for considering future UK rule changes, to ensure that their interaction with the Protocol does not inadvertently lead to any new regulatory Through a new Special Goods Body, there is the opportunity for early engagement on new rules, with the ability to find appropriate solutions through the Joint Committee.
Overall, the agreement provides a new framework which can give reassurance now and into the future that it will operate consistently with Northern Ireland’s central place in the UK market, on an equal footing with counterparts in England, Scotland and Wales.
As well as examining future changes with the EU, we also recognise, as we have done since 2020, that the Government needs to ensure that we monitor and tackle risks of regulatory divergence within the UK internal market. We will therefore accompany the agreement with a series of protections within the UK’s regulatory system to avoid new regulatory barriers:
- First, the Office of the Internal Market (OIM) will specifically monitor any impacts for Northern Ireland arising from relevant future regulatory
- Secondly, we will commit that, in cases where Northern Ireland authorities (whether as an Executive or as individual departments) request that the OIM specifically investigates concerns around any future UK regulatory change, we will provide a full response to any OIM report on the concerns raised, taking into account the real-world impacts that the OIM identifies.
- Thirdly, we will ensure that appropriate authorities throughout the UK are clear as to how they should uphold their existing duties to pay special regard to the need to protect the UK internal market, as set out in section 46 of the UK Internal Market Act 2020. We will issue new guidance to underscore the need for ongoing vigilance, proper analysis of the impacts of their activities, and proactive steps to avoid new barriers to Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade and protect unfettered access to the whole UK market for Northern Ireland’s firms.
Protecting the EU market in this new framework
Overall, this agreement establishes a new and radically different set of arrangements that deal with the issues caused by the old Protocol and protect the smooth flow, and availability, of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This is critical to ensuring that Northern Ireland consumers and businesses benefit fully from Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s internal market, while guaranteeing maximum market access for Northern Ireland’s businesses. The agreement therefore marks a decisive break from the previous argument made by some external commentators that the political concept of an ‘all island economy’ must be prioritised over Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s own internal market, on which so much of Northern Ireland’s prosperity depends.
As a result, there is now considerable underlying regulatory divergence North and South:
- The majority of retail shops in Northern Ireland will sell a large range of consumer goods and foods which cannot be sold outside Northern Ireland – goods which cannot be transported over the international land border with Ireland and the EU, and which may indeed be banned entirely in Ireland (including staples such as Lincolnshire sausages).
- The legal changes to the Protocol also mean that VAT and excise rules have the potential to diverge much further across the land border, subject to sovereign decisions made by the UK Government.
- Alcohol duty structures will differ fundamentally between North and There will also be a range of products potentially zero-rated or reduced-rated in Northern Ireland that go well beyond those in Ireland.
- And our new internal trade schemes will also mean there are goods moved under an unprecedented set of facilitations that apply only because the goods will be used or consumed in Northern Ireland.
The Government recognises that these changes do create a different legal and practical context on the island of Ireland, with substantial and likely increasing divergence between Northern Ireland and Ireland over time – building, of course on the in-built capacity for divergence in the vast majority of areas outside the Protocol including environmental law, professional qualifications, employment law, procurement, immigration, banking, data, and a wide range of services and other rules. As such, the UK Government and the European Commission have agreed that the nature of these new arrangements requires enhanced market surveillance North-South, with a declaration from the Government committing to deepen on-the-market monitoring and enforcement in Northern Ireland, as well as to strengthen cooperation with the Irish Government to avoid any risks to the Single Market.
Our approach will be to manage this sensitively with sensible practical arrangements, focused on maintaining market access for Northern Ireland while protecting the UK and EU internal markets. As the agreement makes clear, this will not involve new checks or controls at the international border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but will use data-sharing and risk analysis to target those who may seek to abuse these arrangements which guarantee the smooth flow of goods within the UK internal market.