The UK government has set out plans to delay border checks on goods until January 2022, as it intensifies its attempts to push the European Commission towards renegotiating the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol.
In a parliamentary statement on Tuesday (14 September), Brexit minister David Frost announced that the requirements for pre-notification of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) goods, due to be introduced in October, will now take effect on 1 January next year, while Export Health Certificates have been pushed back from 1 October 2021 to July 2022.
Next July will also be the implementation date for phytosanitary certificates and physical checks on SPS goods at border control posts, and for safety and security declarations on imports.
Full customs declarations and controls will be introduced on 1 January. UK ministers say the new delays will allow “businesses to focus on their recovery from the pandemic rather than have to deal with new requirements at the border”, with Frost describing the measures as “a pragmatic new timetable for introducing full border controls.”
“The government remains on track to deliver the new systems, infrastructure and resourcing required,” he added.
However, the announcement was not welcomed by the UK’s Food and Drink Federation, an industry lobby group.
“Many food and drink manufacturers will be dismayed by the lateness of this substantial change,” said Ian Wright, the Food and Drink Federation’s chief executive.
“The repeated failure to implement full UK border controls on EU imports since 1 January 2021 undermines trust and confidence among businesses,” he added.
However, the unilateral moves by the UK are another shot across the bows of the European Commission.
Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, responsible for EU–UK relations, has repeatedly said that while the Commission has been going through its options with a “fine-tooth comb” to find “creative and solid” ways to ease the burden on businesses, it will not renegotiate the substance of the protocol.
EU officials have indicated that its compromise offer will cover agrifood and customs arrangements.
The protocol, which forms a vital part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the single market for goods in order to avoid a hard border between the province and the Republic of Ireland.
However, having been one of the most controversial issues throughout the Brexit negotiations, and negotiated personally by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Frost, the protocol is bitterly opposed by large sections of the pro–British unionist community in Northern Ireland
Johnson’s government continues to warn that it is prepared to suspend the protocol if it believes that it is “causing “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”
On Monday, Frost told the House of Lords that he was “concerned” that EU officials appeared to have no interest in negotiation, telling Peers that “if we are to avoid Article 16, there must be a real negotiation between us and the EU”.
Article 16 of the Northern Ireland protocol contains safeguards that allow either party to take unilateral action if the implementation of the agreement gives rise to negative consequences.
“A real negotiation does not mean the EU coming up with its own plans for solutions, within the framework of the existing Protocol, and presenting them to us as “take it or leave it,” Frost said.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]