EU says UK risks breaking law with solo bid to ease Northern Irish checks

UK makes unilateral move to 'support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.'

EU says UK risks breaking law with solo bid to ease Northern Irish checks

DUBLIN — Brussels reacted with anger after Britain said it plans to unilaterally extend grace periods on post-Brexit customs checks at Northern Ireland’s ports for at least six months.

The U.K.’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said measures due to come into force on April 1 under the terms of Britain’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU must be postponed until October 1.

But a spokesperson for European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič condemned the move Wednesday night, branding it “a clear departure from the constructive approach” to ongoing talks on Northern Ireland trade that would undermine trust.

The Commission said it marked the “second time” the U.K. government had been “set to breach international law” after a heated row over the border erupted in 2020.

“Following the UK government’s statement today, Vice-President Šefčovič has expressed the EU’s strong concerns over the UK’s unilateral action, as this amounts to a violation of the relevant substantive provisions of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement,” the spokesperson said.

The U.K. and EU have held a series of talks in recent weeks amid ongoing disruption to trade in Northern Ireland following Britain’s exit from the bloc. The U.K. wants a number of grace periods designed to stagger the introduction of bureaucracy associated with the Northern Ireland protocol to be extended to January 2023, rather than expiring at different dates this year.

With no agreement yet struck, Lewis confirmed Wednesday afternoon that the U.K. was “taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues,” arguing that maintaining the current halfway house on EU customs enforcement would “support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

Under Britain’s new plans, starting in October, export health certificates on food products would be required “alongside the rollout of the Digital Assistance Scheme,” he said, referring to a new online platform meant to streamline existing cross-border paperwork requirements and which is still being developed.

Lewis said the government later this week would officially delay other Northern Ireland border requirements previously agreed with the EU and due to come into effect on April 1. These included customs enforcement on parcels and the potential for new charges on some agri-food products.

Northern Ireland retailers breathed a collective sigh of relief in response to the U.K.’s announcement, with the Aodhán Connolly, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, saying it would “allow us to continue to give Northern Ireland households the choice and affordability they need” and offer “short-term stability.”

However, the Commission spokesperson said Šefčovič would raise the issue with David Frost, his newly-installed counterpart on the EU-U.K. Joint Committee on the Withdrawal Agreement Wednesday night — and made clear retaliatory action is on the cards.

The Commission they said, “respond to these developments in accordance with the legal means established by the Withdrawal Agreement and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.”

Measures supposed to be fully observed starting April 1 include increased physical SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks on food products. These had been waived for the first three months to give Northern Ireland supermarkets and their largely England-based suppliers time to adjust to the introduction of mostly paperwork-based customs hurdles at Northern Irish points of entry.

Even that partial enforcement of new “sea border” requirements on goods coming from Britain starting in January proved too confusing for many suppliers, who reduced, paused or ended shipments to Northern Ireland customers.

Grocers facing gaps on their shelves have scrambled to source new suppliers, mostly from the Republic of Ireland. The trade deal’s Northern Ireland protocol leaves the Irish border barrier-free.

However, Britain remains by far the most important source for Northern Ireland retailers and manufacturers. According to the most recent figures, more than £10 billion in goods annually are shipped to Northern Ireland from Britain, more than twice the value of goods coming from the Irish Republic and continental Europe combined.

He said maintaining the current halfway house on EU customs enforcement would “support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”

He said under Britain’s new plans, starting in October, export health certificates on food products would be required “alongside the rollout of the Digital Assistance Scheme.” This initiative would streamline existing cross-border paperwork requirements into a new online platform still being developed.

Lewis said the government later this week would officially delay other Northern Ireland border requirements previously agreed with the EU and due to come into effect on April 1. These included customs enforcement on parcels and the potential for new charges on some agri-food products.

Britain’s decision to delay previously agreed deadlines, though widely expected, came with no immediate sign that the European Commission had agreed to the changes. At the latest February 24 meeting of the EU-U.K. Joint Committee, set up to resolve issues with the agreement, EU officials stressed the need to stick to existing timetables.

Northern Ireland retailers breathed a collective sigh of relief in response to the U.K.’s announcement.

“The retail industry welcomes the extension of the grace periods in both time and scope, even if it is unilaterally, to allow us to continue to give Northern Ireland households the choice and affordability they need. We now have short-term stability,” said Aodhán Connolly, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.

Measures supposed to be fully observed starting April 1 include increased physical SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks on food products. These had been waived for the first three months to give Northern Ireland supermarkets and their largely England-based suppliers time to adjust to the introduction of mostly paperwork-based customs hurdles at Northern Irish points of entry. 

Even that partial enforcement of new “sea border” requirements on goods coming from Britain starting in January proved too confusing for many suppliers, who reduced, paused or ended shipments to Northern Ireland customers. 

Grocers facing gaps on their shelves have scrambled to source new suppliers, mostly from the Republic of Ireland. The trade deal’s Northern Ireland protocol leaves the Irish border barrier-free.

However, Britain remains by far the most important source for Northern Ireland retailers and manufacturers. According to the most recent figures, more than £10 billion in goods annually are shipped to Northern Ireland from Britain, more than twice the value of goods coming from the Irish Republic and continental Europe combined.