The Windsor Framework’s labelling rules will cut Northern Irish businesses off from British supply chains says Christopher Howarth.

The Northern Irish Protocol, now called the Windsor Framework – after the Fairmont Windsor Park Hotel, not as you might have been led to believe Windsor Castle – is, as its new name would suggest, a masterclass in spin over substance.

Yet for all the barely disguised subterfuge, it (or more accurately a small part of it – the Stormont Brake) managed to achieve a majority in the House of Commons, by 515 votes to 29.

While the ERG’s Legal Advisory Committee published a forensic legal analysis of the Framework concluding that it was not a solution, the Government’s spads could counter by sending around their own anonymous rebuttal, full of spin and half-truths, to get wavering MPs over the line.

It was clever whipping, if not particularly clever politics or government.

So, it’s all settled then? Not in the least. The Windsor Framework has not resolved the problems it was supposed to address: power sharing and the Belfast Agreement. Stormont is still collapsed, and friction in trade over the Irish Sea border remains.

The Windsor Framework has not resolved the problems it was supposed to address: power sharing and the Belfast Agreement. Stormont is still collapsed, and friction in trade over the Irish Sea border remains.

Before voting, many MPs were led to believe that, while not a long-term solution, the Framework would prove at least somewhat beneficial in helping trade flow more freely between two parts of the UK.

That, sadly, is not the case. In many respects the Windsor Framework is actually very much worse than even the status quo. Take one example: labelling.

Currently, food items going from the mainland to Northern Ireland are subject to the so-called grace period, and do not require any checks or compliance. As part of the deal, the UK is giving up the grace periods (and the NI Protocol Bill), taking all these products into the grip of the framework.

In a further concession, these products will now need to be labelled ‘Not for EU’. As the proposed EU law states:

“The marking shall be attached to the packaging in a conspicuous place in such a way as to be easily visible, clearly legible and indelible. It shall not be in any way hidden, obscured, detracted from or interrupted by any other written or pictorial matter or any other intervening material. The marking shall state the following words: ‘Not for EU’”.

To rub it in it adds:

“A sign containing the words ‘Not for EU’ shall be placed next to the price tag or equivalent on the shelves in the establishment where the retail goods are presented to the final consumer.”

Leaving aside whether it is appropriate for an independent country to have to label its own food as not fit for sale in a neighbour’s regime, this has the potential to cripple Northern Ireland’s supply chains. Hauliers in Northern Ireland have already warned that “the EU’s new demands for a labelling system will either unravel or realign the Northern Ireland’s supply chain”.

It is easy to see why as the EU’s Q&A document explains:

“The Commission and the UK government have agreed on requirements for the labelling of agri-food retail goods at different levels: individual, box, shelf signs and posters.”

And

“For example, from 1 October 2023, prepacked meat and fresh milk will be individually labelled.”

In practice that means all suppliers on Great Britain will now have to make two lines of goods, one for the mainland and one for Northern Ireland – something M&S has warned about previously.

As each product needs a label, and the products are often chilled or frozen in sealed boxers, this has to be done in the factory. That means factories need to know how much to ship to Ulster, and cannot use intermediate warehouses with goods that might go there or not.

In other words, the labelling requirement puts a major spanner in the works of Northern Ireland’s integration into British supply chains – supply chains that deliver cheaper products than seen in the Republic of Ireland precisely due to their comparative size and attendant economies of scale.

Unsurprisingly, Northern Irish businesses are up in arms with one (supressed) poll conducted by Logistics UK stating that “that well over half of Great Britain shipping businesses do not intend to re-establish a trading relationship with Northern Ireland.”

So, a small detail to the negotiators in Number 10 has potentially cut Ulster off from the main UK supply chain they have benefited from, diverting them to the EU and Ireland – and helping to dilute the economic case for the UK.

So, a small detail to the negotiators in Number 10 has potentially cut Ulster off from the main UK supply chain they have benefited from, diverting them to the EU and Ireland – and helping to dilute the economic case for the UK.

A detail not contained in the Downing Street spin sheets, or even the Prime Minister’s statement, but very important despite such mysterious oversights.

With an election looming, most MPs are understandably tired of the Northern Ireland Protocol and dearly hoped this would be a solution.

But this issue remains and is unavoidable: labelling is slated to come in in October. So, what should the Government do?

Their instinct might be to ignore the issue. That would be unwise; empty shelves in Northern Ireland would only inflame the political situation. Maybe they will switch tack and insist the whole of the UK labels its goods “Not for EU”; patently ridiculous, but if that is unacceptable for Birmingham why force it on Ballymena?

Sadly, the Protocol will require more action from the Government. They will need the NIP Bill, currently under suspension in the House of Lords but still possible to revive, and at the very least remove the labelling requirement before it excises Northern Ireland from British supply chains.


Christopher Howarth is a former Conservative candidate and special adviser in the Home Office. Follow Christopher on Twitter here

This article was first published on Conservative Home on 14 April 2023.

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