The European Union has said it will take legal action over Britain’s “unilateral action” over the Northern Ireland protocol.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said Britain’s decision to unilaterally continue Irish Sea border grace periods until October amounted to a violation of the agreement.
“Following the UK government’s statement today, vice-president Sefcovic 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,” a statement said.
“This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law.
“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 co-operation.”
In an effort to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, the protocol allows Northern Ireland to remain under some EU rules.
But this means there has to be customs declarations on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, including checks on some products.
Businesses in Northern Ireland have been calling for an extension to the grace periods to avoid having to contend with extra bureaucracy.
Now London has said grace periods such as those for supermarket agri-food movements from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland “will continue” until October.
“As part of the pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the government is taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues through the Joint Committee,” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said.
“These recognise that appropriate time must be provided for businesses to implement new requirements, and support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the move undermines the UK commitment to the protocol.
He said: “A unilateral announcement is deeply unhelpful to building the relationship of trust and partnership that is central to the implementation of the protocol.”
Mr Coveney met with Mr Lewis and the Cabinet Office minister responsible for EU-UK relations, Lord Frost, earlier.
“I made clear to them my regret that the UK had moved in a unilateral way, rather than working in continued partnership with the EU in accordance with the EU-UK joint statements of 11 and 24 February,” Mr Coveney said.
DUP Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Whilst supermarkets and those bringing in goods via our ports from Great Britain will be relieved to see extensions to the grace periods, we will be continuing to press the government for a permanent solution.
“Grace periods do not provide the long-term certainty that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland require.
“The protocol has been demonstrated to be unworkable.”
Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald said: “At last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee, Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic reaffirmed support for the Irish Protocol and the need to work together to deal with issues that have arisen.
“It is incredible that one week later the British government has gone on a solo run and taken unilateral action.
“This was completely unnecessary, totally undermines the work of the Joint Committee and puts it on an immediate collision course with the European Union.”
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