"The [solution] that we have agreed allows Northern Ireland to remain in the UK customs territory and, at the same time, benefit from the single market.

[It’s] a workable system, built to last."

- Michel Barnier, 27 January 2020, Belfast

Very early on in the negotiations ahead of the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU, both the United Kingdom and the EU acknowledged the unique situation of Ireland and Northern Ireland. They agreed that a specific solution was needed to reconcile the different interests at play.

This solution was found in the form of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, which:

  • Avoids a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and safeguards the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions;
  • Preserves the integrity of the EU’s single market, along with all the guarantees it offers in terms of consumer protection, public and animal health, or combatting fraud and trafficking,
  • Maintains Northern Ireland in the UK customs territory so that it may benefit from future Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) that the UK may conclude with third countries.

Main elements of the Protocol

  • Alignment with EU rules: Northern Ireland will remain aligned to a limited set of EU rules, notably related to goods, and the Union's Customs Code will apply to all goods entering Northern Ireland. This avoids any customs checks and controls on the island of Ireland.
  • Necessary checks and controls will take place on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom, including for example, Border Inspection Posts to ensure that the necessary sanitary and phyto-sanitary (“SPS”) controls are carried out.
  • EU customs duties will apply to goods entering Northern Ireland unless those goods are not at risk of entering the EU's Single Market. No customs duties will be payable, however, if it can be demonstrated that goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK are not at risk of entering the EU's Single Market.

The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland will become applicable at the end of the transition period. It was conceived as a stable and lasting solution, and it can be expected that it will apply alongside any agreement on the future partnership.

The EU and the United Kingdom have agreed to create a new mechanism on “consent”, which will give the Northern Ireland Assembly a decisive voice on the long-term application of relevant EU law in Northern Ireland, based on intense discussions between Ireland and the United Kingdom. The Commission has been in constant and close contact with the Irish government on this point.

This consent mechanism concerns the substantive issues of regulatory alignment on goods and customs, the Single Electricity Market, VAT and state aid.

In practice, this means that four years after the end of the transition period, the Assembly can by simple majority give consent to the continued application of relevant Union law, or vote to discontinue its application, in which case the United Kingdom would notify the EU. In such a case, the Protocol will cease to apply two years later.

Every four years thereafter, the Assembly can vote on the continued application of relevant Union law. In case a vote of the Assembly gathers cross-community support for the continued application of relevant Union law, the next vote can only take place eight years thereafter. 

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