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The latest Brexit row: UK's solo run has left the EU in a tricky position

This is Brexit: so expect to see more rows between the UK and EU, particularly over the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Image: PA

THE LATEST BREXIT row is not entirely surprising, as we have had hints that this would be a hostile partnership between the EU and UK – remember the Internal Market Bill?

But when the UK unilaterally announced that it would extend one of the several grace periods in place, waiving certain Brexit checks required between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, it raised concerns about how this latest row could escalate.

Despite an EU-UK Joint Committee set up to encourage dialogue to avoid this exact problem, the UK decided on Wednesday to go on a “solo run”.

The next stage of this saga will see the EU taking legal action “very soon” for a breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol; while the UK could take more ‘unilateral’ actions as soon as this week.

Northern Ireland, meanwhile, is left caught in a technical quandary about how its trade should flow, all to the backdrop of its own heated, historical, political debate.

What are these ‘grace periods’?

A ‘grace period’ in this context is an agreement to waive customs or regulatory obligations for a limited amount of time. 

These were agreed to because of the last-minute nature of the Brexit trade deal – but only on the basis that the UK would implement a number of measures in return, such as giving the EU real-time access to its IT systems. It’s understood many, if not all of these, haven’t yet been put in place.

Although the grace period that was extended by the UK government this week only relates to the requirement of health export certificates for agri-food products being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, there are other checks that have been waived.

As it stands now, Northern Ireland checks on the following have been waived until: 

  • 1 April/1 October: End of a grace period for supermarkets, which will now need health certificates to move agri-food goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
  • 1 April: End of three-month grace period waiving custom declarations needed for parcel deliveries going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
  • 1 July: End of a six-month grace period for GB-NI trade on chilled meat products, which aren’t permitted to be imported to the EU at all. This means chilled meats, like sausages or pre-prepared meals like lasagna, can’t be sent from GB to NI.
  • 31 December: End of a 12-month ‘adaptation’ period for British businesses to implement new EU regulation on the flow of medicines to Northern Ireland.

The UK has requested that several of the above grace periods be extended, however. 

Dear Maros Source: UK Government

On 2 February, in the wake of the EU’s rescinded suggestion that Article 16 be triggered to protect the bloc’s Covid-19 vaccine supply, British minister Michael Gove wrote to European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič asking for the grace periods for agri-food checks, parcel deliveries, chilled meats, and medicines to be extended until “at least” 1 January 2023.

He also made requests relating to problems with the trade of seed potatoes and plants, professional qualifications, pet travel, and steel trade to Northern Ireland.

Although the agri-food health certificates are the only sector of the above to receive an extension by the UK, the statement released on Wednesday by the UK government also said that ”further guidance will be provided later this week” on parcel deliveries and for problems with soil attached to trading plants, seeds, bulbs, vegetables and agricultural machinery.

It’s understood that a meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee was suggested for mid-March, where an extension of the grace periods would have possibly been discussed. 

Where did these ‘grace periods’ come from?

On 8 December, Gove and Šefčovič agreed to a grace period for “trusted” supermarkets and retailers exporting agrifoods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland as well as the other grace periods listed above.

brexit European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic Source: PA

In essence, this was in response to concerns raised from businesses and hauliers about how late in the day the Brexit trade deal was being left, putting them in an awkward position to change how the region’s trade flows.

The EU-UK trade deal was finally agreed to on 24 December, which meant that both sides avoided tariffs being added to customs and regulatory checks that result from the UK leaving the Single Market and Customs Union.

This gave businesses, workers, and hauliers a matter of days to read and understand the document – though they would have known the UK was leaving the Customs Union and Single Market for some time.

A few months earlier in June, the UK had refused to extend the transition period by six months, arguing that this time pressure would speed negotiations with the EU up. It could be argued that these grace periods are mini extension by another name.

What’s going to happen next? 

The UK’s latest decision has left the EU in a bit of a bind. If they reject the UK’s extension of the grace period, it will court no favours with the people of Northern Ireland.

The Northern Ireland Retail Consortium has welcomed the extension of the grace period “even if it is unilaterally, to allow us to continue to give NI households the choice and affordability”.

It’s not yet clear whether the European Commission’s planned legal action will mean them challenging the extension itself, or the way in which it was done.

The European Parliament has also postponed its vote on ratifying the Brexit trade agreement, which was due to happen on 26 March. The trade agreement is being applied in principal at the moment – again, due to the last-minute nature of the deal.

brexit Source: PA

If the EU accepts the extension of six months, it may give the UK more of an inclination to do something similar again, and the longer these checks are put off being implemented, the greater a threat it is to the EU’s valuable Single Market.

This is despite this being a row of the UK’s own choosing: Theresa May announced in a 2017 speech that Brexit meant leaving the Single Market and Custom Union – seemingly against the wishes of those in her own party – and a UK negotiation decision to pursue and agree to this arrangement, that has landed Northern Ireland in this position.

As trade expert David Henig said: “The UK government chose to minimise regulatory alignment with the EU in the full knowledge this would mean greater checks on Great Britain – Northern Ireland food trade”.

This also raises concerns for the future dialogue between the EU and UK - Šefčovič is no longer in discussions with Michael Gove, who reportedly got on well together. 

In the past week, former Brexit negotiator David Frost has been appointed to the role and has been suggested as the driving force that “upped the ante” through Wednesday’s unilateral decision.

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Coveney said yesterday morning that this relationship was “really important for Ireland”:

And before Lord Frost had even spoken in detail to Maroš Šefčovič in his new role, this was announced in a written statement by the British government in Westminster. To say that is disrespectful would be an understatement.

The huge problem the North faces

If and when the grace periods are eventually lifted, it’s going to cause a lot of administrative problems for Northern Ireland – particularly for those agri-food certs.

Speaking at a Stormont Agriculture Committee yesterday, Permanent Secretary at the Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs (Daera) Denis McMahon said that food and plant safety checks currently only applied to 30% of the agri-food goods, thanks to the grace period.

“We’re achieving this ahead of a major change when the retail grace period ends, and there will be a huge increase in demand, building on current levels, which will not be sustainable with the staff and resources currently available to Daera.”

Stormont’s chief vet Dr Robert Huey said when the grace period for supermarket goods expires, the number of regulatory agri-food checks required in the region will be close to the number currently processed by the whole EU.

Dr Huey said that using Ireland-bound lorries as a guide, he calculated that 1,350 NI-bound loads from GB currently covered by operator declarations would require 20-30,000 certifications when the grace period ends.

“That’s a huge challenge, that’s approaching the same number of CHED-P (Common Health Entry Document) checks that are done for the entire European Union,” he said.

And I’ve spoken about this to the Commission on purely technical, not political, terms about ‘here is what I’m being asked to do by the Northern Ireland Protocol with my currently 12 vets, that’s not going to work’.

“That’s where we find ourselves. So the extension of the grace period, if that is what occurs, is welcomed but it’s not the solution. And we need to use that and if we do get the extra time we need to use that to work our way towards a better solution.”

With reporting from PA.

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