EU and UK officials will discuss on Wednesday (24 February) the possibility of extending the ‘grace periods’ that exempt goods crossing the Irish Sea border from new customs checks introduced by the new trade arrangement.
The EU-UK Joint Committee, chaired by Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and European Commission Vice-President Maros Šefčovič, is, however, unlikely to make a significant breakthrough.
Earlier this month, the UK formally requested to extend the grace periods until 2023, following complaints by businesses about the new bureaucratic requirements needed for them to transport goods.
The request was also made, in part, because the UK ministers saw an opportunity to seize concessions from the European Commission following its short-lived move to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol and impose border controls on COVID-19 vaccines being delivered to the UK.
Arlene Foster, the First Minister of the Northern Ireland assembly government, whose Democratic Unionist party has always opposed the protocol, said any extension would just be a “sticking plaster”.
“it will help businesses in the short term but any businesses that I speak to want a permanent solution and they want to ensure that they don’t have to come back to all this again,” she said.
The province’s Unionist parties have united to campaign for the protocol to be scrapped, though other major parties, including Sinn Fein, the moderate nationalist SDLP, and the Alliance, support the protocol
The Commission has indicated that it will not make significant concessions, with Sefcovic instead telling reporters on Tuesday that the UK was still not allowing EU officials in Northern Ireland to have real time access to UK customs IT systems, and that UK officials were not carrying out physical checks on food consignments entering Northern Irish ports.
“Not everything can be solved. There are inevitable consequences of Brexit, and simply we have to follow EU law. We have to follow the agreement we just signed,” said Šefčovič.
However, the UK believes it has more leverage, having agreed on Tuesday to give the EU a two-month extension in order for its lawmakers to ratify the trade and co-operation pact agreed on Christmas Eve.
The ‘technical’ extension will run until 30 April “to allow the time needed for the completion of the legal-linguistic revision of the Agreement in all 24 languages”. The pact was provisionally ratified by EU member states and approved by the UK parliament on 31 December.
David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator on the trade accord, who will take up a cabinet position as minister for EU-UK relations, described the delay as “a little disappointing”.
Frost will take over Gove’s position as the UK’s co-chair of the Joint Committee on 1 March, with some Conservative lawmakers expecting that he will take a tougher stance against the EU.
In truth, there was little chance that London would have turned down the Commission’s request as that would have voided the trade agreement and left the UK and EU trading on ‘no deal’ terms.
The government did comment, however, that “it is disappointing the EU has not completed its internal processes in the agreed timeframe, given the uncertainty it creates for businesses on both sides.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]