The British government has announced a unilateral, indefinite extension to grace periods that delay the implementation of some checks required by the Northern Ireland protocol.
Brexit minister David Frost said that by not introducing checks due to come into force on October 1st, he hoped to create space for the European Union to engage with his call last July for major changes to the protocol.
“There have since been initial technical talks between the UK and the EU. These will continue in order to determine whether a constructive process can be established for discussing and addressing the issues identified with the protocol. Following on from this, to provide space for potential further discussions, and to give certainty and stability to businesses while any such discussions proceed, the Government will continue to operate the protocol on the current basis. This includes the grace periods and easements currently in force,” he said in a written statement to parliament.
The European Commission said it “took note” of Britain’s action, adding that the Brexit withdrawal agreement is an international treaty and that both sides are legally bound to fulfil their obligations under it. But the EU executive, which has paused legal action against Britain for earlier breaches of the agreement, said it would not immediately launch an infringement procedure over Britain’s latest unilateral action.
"Our focus remains on identifying long-term, flexible and practical solutions to address issues related to the practical implementation of the protocol that citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland are experiencing. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the protocol. The commission continues to engage constructively with the UK, in the interest of all communities in Northern Ireland," it said.
“Our approach to the protocol is based on the achievement of stability, certainty and predictability in line with the objectives of the Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and in order to protect the single market. In this way, businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland will reap the full benefits of the protocol and, in particular, the access to the single market it provides.”
Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic will visit Belfast and Dublin later this week and he is expected to speak to Lord Frost in the coming days. Addressing the British-Irish Association in Oxford at the weekend, Lord Frost said that the EU’s offer to implement the protocol more flexibly would not satisfy Britain’s demands.
He insisted sweeping changes to the protocol’s rules on moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and on how the agreement is governed were essential.
“I want to be clear that any response which avoids serious engagement with those ideas, and aims at just dragging out the process, will, in the end, not work for us,” he said.
Varadkar anticipates action
Earlier on Monday Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said he expected the EU would agree to an extension in order to allow "deep and meaningful" talks about the protocol.
Speaking before Lord Frost’s announcement, Mr Varadkar said he expected an extension to the current grace periods.
"I think there is a high probability that it will happen, we are certainly open to it," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme. Mr Varadkar was in London for a meeting with British minister Michael Gove.
Mr Varadkar said he believed the business community, in the North and the Republic, would welcome an extension.
“It’s important that we use the period of any extension that may occur really to get down to business and to try to put in place more permanent arrangements to make sure that the protocol is made more workable,” he said.
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, avoiding a hard border with Ireland at the extent of additional bureaucratic barriers for goods crossing from Britain.