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Brexit: EU says UK's unilateral move to extend NI Protocol grace period 'breaks international law'

The UK formally requested that the EU extend this grace period, which would waive new checks and required paperwork for agri-foods.

Lorries driving off the European Highlander P&O ferry at the Port of Larne.
Lorries driving off the European Highlander P&O ferry at the Port of Larne.
Image: PA

Updated Mar 3rd 2021, 7:16 PM

IRELAND AND THE EU have both strongly criticised the UK’s decision to unilaterally extend a grace period that was given to supermarkets in Great Britain exporting agri-foods to Northern Ireland.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said he was “disappointed” by the decision while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said that it “clearly undermines” previous commitments given last week.

Under the trade agreement the UK and EU struck on Christmas Eve, decisions around the Northern Ireland Protocol must be taken jointly between both sides.

But the UK has said today that it will extend the grace period due to expire on 1 April, until 1 October this year – a six-month extension.

In a statement this evening, the Taoiseach said: 

I am disappointed that the British Government has today announced unilateral action relating to the Protocol. Issues relating to the Protocol should be resolved by the UK and EU working together, through the Joint Committee.

“We have worked continuously in support of efforts to find sensible means of implementing the Protocol that respond to challenges identified. We will continue to do so, but unilateral action undermines the trust necessary to reach agreement.”

“I call on the British Government to engage urgently with the European Commission, and to work towards agreed outcomes.”

Coveney similarly criticised the unilateral decision, saying that such an approach “is deeply unhelpful to building the relationship of trust and partnership”.

Coveney has also told the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis and the new Cabinet minister responsible for EU-UK relations David Frost of his “regret that the UK had moved in a unilateral way”.

He said that the British Government’s decision “clearly undermines” made in joint statements issued on 11 and 24 February.

I am well aware of the practical challenges Brexit has caused for business and citizens in Northern Ireland and have strongly supported efforts to ensure that issues are addressed within the existing framework of the Protocol.

“This includes in respect to modest extensions to grace periods being agreed between the UK and the EU in a spirit of partnership.”

European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič tweeted that he would be speaking to Frost tonight to raise the EU’s “strong concerns” about the UK’s decision.

In a statement ahead of that phonecall, Šefčovič said that the UK’s unliteral actions would “breach international law”. 

“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. This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law,” he said. 

This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now, thereby undermining both the work of the Joint Committee and the mutual trust necessary for solution-oriented cooperation. 

What the grace period means

Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, health export certificates are required for agri-foods being sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

But out of concern that this additional paperwork and checks would hamper the North’s food supplies, a grace period was given to major supermarkets in order to keep shelves stocked. 

On 3 February, the UK formally requested that the European Commission extend this grace period, which would waive new checks and required paperwork for agri-foods, along with a number of other sectors, until 1 January 2023.

But today, it announced that it was unilaterally making the decision to extend it for six months. 

The UK statement

A UK government spokesperson for Northern Ireland said today: “For supermarkets and their suppliers, as part of the operational plan the UK committed to at the UK-EU Joint Committee on 24 February, the current Scheme for Temporary Agri-food Movements to Northern Ireland will continue until 1 October. Certification requirements will then be introduced in phases alongside the roll out of the Digital Assistance Scheme.

“In addition, further guidance will be provided later this week on parcel movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to provide necessary additional time for traders beyond 1 April. Guidance will also be set out to help address practical problems on soil attached to the movement of plants, seeds, bulbs, vegetables and agricultural machinery.”

The issue of GB-to-NI parcel deliveries was one of the other issues that the British government had requested an extension of grace periods over, along with the extending the six-month grace period of the ban on chilled meats.

A request to extend the adjustment period for medicines to be sent from GB to Northern Ireland was also made.

As it stands, here is the plan for more Brexit checks that the UK still need to introduce:

  • 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.
    Irish hauliers driving through the UK to use the landbridge will require them from 1 April
  • 1 July: End of a six-month grace period for Great Britain-Northern Ireland trade on chilled meat products, which aren’t permitted to be imported to the EU at all. 
  • 31 December: End of a 12-month adaptation period for British businesses to implement new EU regulation on to the flow of medicines to Northern Ireland.

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The British government announced this measure amid a busy news day for the UK: the Budget was unveiled at 12.30pm in the House of Commons by Chancellor Rishi Sunak; and Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon gave evidence over the Scottish Government’s handling of the Alex Salmond misconduct allegations. 

Political reaction 

In addition to his claim that the UK’s move was a breach of international law, Šefčovič said that it risked the protection of the Good Friday Agreement. 

“The Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, and to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland,” he said. 

Throughout last year, we worked tirelessly to find practical workable solutions, based on the Protocol, to minimise disruption caused by Brexit and to help facilitate the everyday life of communities in Northern Ireland. 

In Ireland, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said that today’s “solo run from the British government was completely unnecessary, totally undermines the work of the Joint Committee and puts it on an immediate collision course with the EU.”

Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said: “There will be very serious concerns about this, not with the ends but the means. Given the Brexit [trade agreement] still isn’t ratified, how will this build trust and allow for a positive reset of relations?”

- With reporting by Rónán Duffy

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