The Windsor Framework (“the Framework”), which changes parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol (“the Protocol”), marks another significant Brexit milestone. It was announced by the UK Government and the EU at the end of February.
The main changes relate to trade, the UK’s internal market, and Northern Ireland’s say in the Protocol. This articles explains what we know so far about its impact in Wales.
A “step towards” improved UK-EU relations
The First Minister said the Framework is “a step towards” improved relations “which is in all our interests”. He describes the EU as Wales’ “nearest and most important neighbour”, and “most important trading partner”.
The negotiated solution to some of the Protocol’s issues could unlock greater UK-EU cooperation on important matters to Wales. The UK Government describes it as “a new way forward” in its Command Paper.
The First Minister hopes the Framework will lead to changes to the “more regrettable parts” of the UK’s trade deal with the EU, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA), but hasn’t said which parts or what changes he’d like to see.
He also spoke of the impact on Welsh ports already experiencing trade diversions since Brexit, which “is a concern for us that we’ll be watching carefully”.
Together, the TCA and Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the Protocol, govern how the UK and EU work together after Brexit. Every Welsh Minister has responsibilities to deliver them, albeit some more than others. The Framework mainly falls within the economy, rural affairs, international relations and constitutional affairs portfolios.
The Framework simplifies or eliminates requirements for customs, agrifoods, VAT and excise, pet movements, manufactured goods, medicines and subsidies. The Institute for Government has a detailed explainer of these changes.
It creates a new “Stormont Brake”, whereby the Northern Ireland Assembly could object to changes to EU law due to apply in Northern Ireland. This is subject to certain requirements, including the support of 30 MLAs from two political parties.
The UK Government also agreed not to proceed with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. The Senedd refused consent for the Bill and called for a negotiated solution during scrutiny.
The EU agreed:
- not to proceed with seven infringement proceedings it had against the UK; and
- to proceed with granting the UK access to the EU’s science and research programmes, including the €96bn Horizon programme, when the Framework is implemented. Delayed access since Brexit halted UK research funding, including to Welsh higher education bodies. It also led to the UK Government designing a back-up scheme, ‘Pioneer’ if UK access isn’t possible.
Did the Welsh Government or Senedd have a say in the Framework?
In short, no.
The Minister for Economy, Vaughan Gething, confirmed that the Welsh Government was not consulted on the Framework. And while “it seems like a pragmatic step forward”, he said “there are still parts that we need to resolve”.
The Counsel General and Minister for the Constitution also said:
Regrettably, the UK Government did not engage the Welsh Government on the detail of the Framework in advance of the announcement; and has not so far done so in assessing the implications of the Framework for trade flows across the Irish Sea. This remains a concern that we continue to pursue with the UK Government.
Nevertheless, the Welsh Government and Senedd will put parts of the Framework in place.
The Senedd might need to pass laws, or consent to the UK Parliament passing laws for Wales. For example, the UK Government’s Command Paper says it needs to amend the UK Internal Market Act 2020 and VAT legislation. The Welsh Ministers are also responsible for some trade checks.
There was no requirement for a vote on the Framework but Welsh MPs could vote on regulations for the Stormont Brake in the UK Parliament on 22 March, with 515 votes in favour and 29 against. The Prime Minister’s spokesperson said it’d be considered a vote on the entire Framework.
The UK and the EU formally agreed the Framework at the Joint Committee, which oversees the Withdrawal Agreement on 28 March.
Does the Welsh Government go to the Joint Committee?
The Welsh Government doesn't attend the Joint Committee, nor its Specialised Committees, in contrast to TCA meetings, where they attend as observers. A new Specialised Committee to implement the Framework first met on 27 April.
On at least two occasions in 2021, the Welsh Government asked to attend Joint Committee meetings when anything relating to the Protocol that impacts Welsh ports is discussed.
The First Minister later confirmed that the UK Government denied this request. The Legislation, Justice and Constitution (LJC) Committee raised concerns about this issue to the House of Lords’ European Affairs Committee which included it in its new report.
After Brexit, an interministerial group on UK-EU relations was established which the Minister for Rural Affairs and North Wales, and Trefnydd, attended on 20 March. The accompanying statement confirms that neither the Welsh nor Scottish governments were invited to the Joint Committee on 28 March.
Is Wales discussed at Joint Committee meetings?
Under Article 6 of the Protocol, the Joint Committee must keep trade between Northern Ireland and the other parts of the UK under “constant review”. We don’t know to what extent Wales or Welsh interests are considered because the meetings aren’t public.
The LJC Committee has called on the UK’s governments to improve transparency on what happens at UK-EU meetings for the Senedd, stakeholders and the public. You can read more about this in our previous article.
The Framework in the Senedd
The Senedd has taken steps to better understand the Framework’s implications.
Members have debated its potential impacts in the chamber and it falls across three committees. Use the drop down menus to find out more:
The LJC Committee covers UK-EU governance and has asked the Welsh Government for more information on the Framework. It’s also responsible for non-trade international agreements, although changes to the Protocol are unlikely to trigger treaty scrutiny processes.
The CCWLSIR Committee received evidence on the Framework for its current inquiry on Wales-Ireland relations. The First Minister told the inquiry that Horizon access “will not be realised in the near-term”.
On the Framework, the Minister for Economy told the Committee that he wants to:
get to a position where there is a common approach to the western seaboard of the UK and its relationship with the island of Ireland, and that would help all of us.
He said that engagement with the UK Government on this has been positive and will say more when he can.
Key questions remain
The Prime Minister says the Framework “is the beginning of a new chapter” in UK-EU relations.
Despite welcoming the agreement, the Welsh Government had no input into its contents and clearly has some concerns for Welsh ports and the timeline for Horizon accession.
The Framework brings into focus how Wales is represented in UK-EU decisions, and the levers available to the Welsh Government and Senedd to put forward a Welsh perspective.
Article by Sara Moran, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament