UK delays customs checks on EU imports by six months, again

The UK government has decided not to impose customs checks on EU imports until the end of 2023, in a major policy U-turn announced on Thursday. [EFE/ANDY RAIN]

The UK on Thursday (11 March) bowed to pressure from businesses by again delaying customs checks on imports from the EU and elsewhere by six months, to January 2022.

The move, which is the second six-month delay made by the UK government, means that customs processes for some imports will not be required until January 2022.

Certification for animal products such as milk and meat will be required from October, with in-person inspections being carried out.

Customs declarations for all standard goods will be needed from January 2022. The move should ease the burden on traders operating between the UK and the EU but it underscores the different approaches to customs checks taken by the two sides.

Customs checks on both sides were supposed to come into force when the UK left the EU’s single market on 1 January. The EU has been imposing full customs checks at the border since January as planned.

Cabinet office minister Michael Gove told UK lawmakers on Thursday that “disruption caused by COVID has lasted longer and has been deeper than we anticipated,” adding that “we have listened to businesses who have made a strong case that they need more time to prepare.”

Andrew Opie, a spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium, an industry lobby group, said that without a delay consumers “might otherwise have seen empty shelves for some products”.

Fellow minister David Frost, who is responsible for EU relations, said that the extensions would “give traders time to focus on getting back on their feet as the economy opens up after a difficult year.”

“We are confident that this new timetable will allow import businesses to re-establish their trading arrangements after a difficult period due to coronavirus, in the most straightforward and lightest touch way possible,” he added.

However, Labour’s shadow Cabinet Office minister Jack Dromey said the government’s latest extension “smacks of ill-preparedness and incompetence”.

“They have had years to prepare for this but can’t stop missing their own deadlines,” he added.

Boris Johnson’s government has also provoked a new row with the EU after unilaterally extending the grace periods on customs checks for goods travelling to Northern Ireland, prompting the EU to threaten legal action.

Meanwhile, the UK government says that overall freight volumes between the UK and EU have rebounded after what it described as “an expected dip in January as a result of Covid-19 restrictions, pre-January stockpiling, and some initial teething problems as businesses adapted to new rules for trade with the EU”.

It added that “overall freight volumes between the UK and the EU have been back to their normal levels since the start of February.”

In early February, the UK’s Road Haulage Association reported that exports to the EU fell by two thirds in the first month of the new UK-EU trade deal.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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