UK extends grace periods on Northern Ireland goods checks, again

A poster against a hard border is pictured by a road in Newry in Northern Ireland, Britain, 31 January 2020. [EPA-EFE/AIDAN CRAWLEY]

The UK and the European Union are on a collision course over the Northern Ireland protocol after Boris Johnson’s government announced on Monday (6 September) that it would again unilaterally extend grace periods on goods checks.

In a ministerial statement on Monday, Brexit minister David Frost said that London would continue to operate the Protocol on the current basis, effectively extending the grace periods currently in force.

“Over the coming weeks, we will continue to talk to the EU to see if it is possible to make genuine and substantive progress on the proposals in our Command Paper on the operation of the Northern Ireland Protocol,” said a UK Government spokesperson.

“In order to provide time and political space for these discussions, and to give business as much trading certainty as possible, we have announced today that we will maintain the existing arrangements for moving goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, including the current grace periods and easements.”

The unilateral move, which the UK also made in March to avoid the imposition of border checks on a range of goods, is the latest in a series of flexes as Frost hopes to push the EU to renegotiate the protocol.

UK and EU officials have been engaged in talks aimed at resolving the difficulties faced by businesses in Northern Ireland for several months but are no closer to breaking the impasse.

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, who is responsible on the EU side for implementing the Brexit agreement, is due to visit Northern Ireland on Thursday and Friday.

Without changes to the protocol, from 1 October a number of grace periods on border checks would expire. Among them are requirements for supermarkets to use export health certification for meat, dairy, fish and eggs going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The protocol keeps Northern Ireland aligned with the EU’s single market for goods in order to avoid a border with the Republic, and was agreed as part of the UK’s withdrawal agreement with the EU. However, it is strongly opposed by Northern Ireland’s Unionist community, which identifies as British, and has imposed new administrative burdens on the province’s business community.

In response, the European Commission said that it would “take note” of the UK’s decision.

“Our focus remains on identifying long-term, flexible and practical solutions to address issues related to the practical implementation of the Protocol that citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland are experiencing,” the EU executive stated, repeating that it would not agree to renegotiate the protocol.

“Both sides are legally bound to fulfil their obligations under the Agreement,” said the Commission, adding that “our approach to the Protocol is based on the achievement of stability, certainty and predictability in line with the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement and in order to protect the Single Market.”

However, the Commission said that it had no plans to reopen new legal proceedings against the UK, having paused an infringement case against the country over its March extension.

[Edited by Frédéric Simon]

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