New Brexit row after UK extends exemption to Irish border checks

The European Union has accused the UK government of breaking international law after it moved to unilaterally extend grace periods for Irish Sea border checks. [Aidan Crawley/EPA/EFE]

The European Union has accused the UK government of breaking international law after it moved to unilaterally extend grace periods for Irish Sea border checks.

On Wednesday (3 March), Boris Johnson’s government stated that “the current Scheme for Temporary Agri-food Movements to Northern Ireland will continue until 1 October” in order to allow continued deliveries to “supermarkets and their suppliers, as part of the operational plan the UK committed to at the UK-EU Joint Committee on 24 February”.

“Certification requirements will then be introduced in phases alongside the roll out of the Digital Assistance Scheme,” it added.

The move follows complaints from businesses in the province about the prospects of onerous new bureaucratic requirements for trade to the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland Protocol keeps the province in the EU single market for goods, establishing a trade border with Great Britain.

Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice president in charge of EU-UK relations post-Brexit, said the move amounted to “a violation of the relevant substantive provisions” of the Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.

The UK government rebutted those claims. In a phone call later on Wednesday evening, the British minister for UK-EU relations, David Frost, told Šefčovič that “such operational measures were well precedented in other international trade arrangements, and that they were entirely consistent with our intention to discharge our obligations under the Protocol in good faith”.

Frost, who took up his ministerial post earlier this week having previously served as the UK’s chief negotiator on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement with the EU, also informed Šefčovič that “progress still needed to be urgently made to address the direct and often disproportionate impact that aspects of the Protocol are having on the citizens of Northern Ireland, contrary to its intended purpose.”

The UK government has described its steps as an “operational easement”, rather than a formal extension of the grace period.

The step by London has been welcomed by Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties who have long opposed the Protocol and are campaigning for it to be scrapped. However, Simon Hoare, the chairman of the UK parliament’s Northern Ireland Affairs committee, and a member of the governing party, tweeted that while the case for extending the grace periods was “compelling” the government’s unilateral move was an “approach most likely to have negative/unhelpful consequences”.

Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, described it as “deeply unhelpful” and a breach of the protocol.

The row is the latest in a series of disputes over the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and, specifically, the treatment of goods being transported to and from Great Britain.

Last autumn, the UK government threatened to give its ministers the power to unilaterally override the Protocol as part of its own internal market legislation, prompting the European Commission to threaten legal action.

Meanwhile, the European Commission’s shortlived move to imposed border controls on deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines reignited demands from Conservative lawmakers to scrap the Protocol or obtain further concessions.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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