EU warns ‘patience wearing thin’ on Northern Ireland protocol
EU unhappy at delays in building border posts to check goods from Britain going into North
Loyalists took part in an anti-Northern Ireland protocol rally in Portadown, Co Armagh on Saturday. Photograph: PA
The European Union has accused Britain of failing to implement basic aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol and warned it is weighing fresh action to ensure enforcement of the agreement as the two sides prepare to meet this week.
The mood has soured ahead of EU-UK talks in London on Wednesday at which all 27 member states will be represented as the European Commission’s Maros Sefcovic meets with his counterpart David Frost to discuss the implementation of the agreement.
The EU is unhappy over a halt in the construction of permanent border posts for the checking of goods travelling from Britain into the North, and a failure to allow EU officials to observe IT customs data in real-time to monitor what goods are entering the Single Market and whether they are being adequately checked.
“The EU has been patient, but the EU’s patience is wearing thin,” an EU official warned.
“To date the UK has not implemented the commitments that it took in December. The difficulty that we face is: how do you trust a partner in such circumstances?”
In March, the EU launched the first step in an infringement procedure against Britain for its decision to unilaterally extend grace periods on some checks set out in the protocol, accusing London of breaching good faith provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The procedure can lead to financial penalties and retaliatory tariffs if the dispute cannot be resolved and one side is found to be in breach of the deal.
The EU official warned that unless the British government implemented what had been agreed, the bloc would take further action.
“Unless there’s a change of course from the UK then it seems like those kinds of measures are not sufficient and therefore we need to consider further measures. We will consider the tools and options that are available,” the official said.
British officials accuse the EU of placing the priority of protecting the Single Market above the preservation of peace, and have called for the EU to bend the rules as a full implementation of the protocol is too politically sensitive due to the opposition of unionists and loyalists.
“We have sent a range of policy papers to the EU to outline solutions. However, the they must show more common sense and pragmatism if we are to make progress,” a UK government spokesman said.
“As Lord Frost set out over the weekend, time is starting to run out and solutions are urgently needed. We will continue to consider all our options in meeting our responsibility to sustain peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland”.
A point of concern is the expiry at the end of June of a grace period allowing uncooked meat products to move from Britain into Northern Ireland, which is normally not possible from a non-EU country into the Single Market, and the UK has indicated it could resort to another unilateral extension if a solution is not found.
While the EU has pointed out that almost all checks would be unnecessary if Britain agrees to align with its food and agriculture rules, ongoing adherence to EU rules as they evolve is ruled out in London as a political non-starter as it goes against the aims of Brexit.
The British government has asked for its domestic standards to be recognised as equivalent, and for the EU to show flexibility.
EU officials provided a list of areas in which they said the bloc had shown flexibility and was prepared to find workarounds within EU rules to ease disruption for citizens.
These were on the supply of medicines, on guide dogs, on VAT on second-hand cars, on high-risk plants, on the linking-up of a UK IT system for declaring SPS goods, on livestock movements and on tariff rate quotas on steel, officials said.
“As regard criticism of the protocol, we take it extremely seriously, that’s why we are working and have been working for months on these flexibilities and are willing to look for more solutions,” the official said.
“What we’re simply saying is that there are limits to the solutions that can be found, because some are the result of structural choices of the UK. It’s a question of the UK government choosing its priorities,” the official added. “The onus is on the UK to fulfil its obligations.”