The British government decided to extend the time period which gives Northern Ireland time to adapt to post-Brexit rules without the agreement of the European Union (EU). In response the EU is prepared to launch a two-pronged legal assault on the United Kingdom (UK).
It has been reported that it is likely the EU will initiate a formal “infringement proceeding” that may end up at the European Court of Justice and commence the dispute mechanism in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. The EU27 ambassadors were briefed on Tuesday (9th March). Maros Sefcovic, the European commission vice-president told the ambassadors that plans were being worked out. It was reported that there was full agreement at the meeting that the EU “had to act firmly”. Action could begin very soon.
The Northern Ireland Protocol which was part of the withdrawal agreement requires checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland to ensure the comply with the EU rules. This is because Northern Ireland is meant to continue complying with the single market rules in order to prevent border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
Some border checks have already disrupted supply chains which has led to protests from unionist parties. The first grace period is meant to expire at the end of March which will create further disruptions.
Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary stated last week that the UK would unilaterally extend the grace periods. He argued that the government had to act to protect the interests of Northern Ireland and keep the shelves stocked.
Maros Sefcovic subsequently accused the UK of breaching the withdrawal agreement and international law, as well as a “clear departure” from constructive cooperation.
The UK has denied breaching international law and that it informed the EU at an “officials’ level” regarding the extension. A UK government spokesman said, “these measures are lawful and consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the protocol”.
The UK has stated changing the grace period is “temporary”, “lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of Northern Ireland Protocol”.
“Low key operation measures like these are well precedented and common in the early days of major international treaties. In some areas, the EU also seems to need time to implement the details of our agreements. This is a normal process when implementing new treaties and not something that should warrant legal action”.
“These aspects of the Norther Ireland Protocol have only been in force for 70 days and we saw the challenges faced by supermarkets and others in the early weeks of January as a result of the Joint Committee agreement only being reached in December”.
“That is why it is right to provide a proper further period for them to plan ahead, particularly in the current circumstances of a global pandemic”.
“All sides need to keep in mind the fact that the Protocol depends on cross community consent and confidence if it is to work and deliver our common objective of protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its dimensions, North-South and East-West”.
“We look forward to discussing the issues within the Joint Committee framework in a constructive fashion”.