EU agrees deal with Britain to extend grace period in ‘sausage war’

European Commission announces easing of several aspects of NI protocol

The EU and Britain have announced a temporary deal that will allow uncooked meats to flow into Northern Ireland for an extra three months alongside a number of other post-Brexit tweaks, following a dispute dubbed the "sausage war".

Chilled meats such as sausages and fresh mince cannot be imported into the EU's single market from outside jurisdictions that do not follow the same rules. As the North remains aligned with the EU's single market under the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, an end to such trade from Britain across the Irish Sea into the North was set to be restricted from the end of the month under the current post-Brexit EU-UK arrangements.

But on Wednesday EU and UK authorities said that a grace period allowing that trade to continue would be extended until September 30th, and the European Commission announced a series of measures to ease other aspects of the protocol.

“We are not issuing a blank cheque. This solution is of a temporary nature, to which strong conditions are attached,” European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic told journalists.

In additional tweaks to Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit arrangements to make them easier, animals moving between Britain and Northern Ireland will no longer have to be tagged multiple times. The commission also announced it would bring forward legislation to make an exception for Northern Ireland to allow for medicines to continue to be seamlessly distributed there from hubs in Britain.

Drivers from the UK will also no longer need to show a motor insurance green card when in the EU, easing cross-border trips into the Republic in particular.

“Real-life solutions to real-life issues from the EU – a positive practical approach to the protocol,” wrote Taoiseach Micheál Martin, describing the developments as “welcome news”.

Minister of State for European Affairs Thomas Byrne said the EU had shown “tremendous flexibility today, and a willingness to stretch as far as possible within existing legislation”.

“Today’s announcement shows the EU’s commitment to making the protocol work for the people of Northern Ireland,” Mr Byrne wrote.

Swiss-style deal

Mr Sefcovic expressed hope that the British government would agree to a Switzerland-style deal to align with the bloc on food, plant and animal standards, an idea that business groups have called for and which survey data indicates has strong support in Northern Ireland.

“It would see 80 per cent of checks required under the protocol disappear in a flash,” Mr Sefcovic said.

However, British sources have rejected the idea of alignment to EU rules, insisting that a deal is only possible if Brussels recognises UK standards as equivalent.

British Brexit minister David Frost said Britain would work energetically with the EU to agree a permanent solution to the chilled meats issue and stressed that “the rest of the UK” would not have to adopt any new EU food safety rules during the grace period.

“We are pleased we have been able to agree a sensible extension on chilled meats moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland – one that does not require rules in the rest of the UK to align with future changes in EU agrifood rules,” he said.

"This is a positive first step but we still need to agree a permanent solution – Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its consumers should be able to enjoy products they have bought from Great Britain for years."

In a unilateral declaration, Britain agreed to the EU’s conditions for extending the grace period, which requires that the meats can only be sold in Northern Ireland, must be clearly marked as such and are accompanied by official certificates from British food safety authorities.

Data on the ground in the North indicates that supermarkets have already begun adapting supply chains to source more produce locally and from the Republic to avoid possible checks and reduce paperwork, according to the European Commission.

Reaction

In Northern Ireland, the director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Aodhán Connolly, said following the announcement of the extension that while it was “good to see the EU and the UK co-operating on this issue and reaching agreement”, in trade terms it was a “peripheral matter”.

“The most pressing issue is that fate of thousands of food products moving daily from Great Britain to Northern Ireland which will be subject to extensive control when that grace period ends in October, and we’re no closer to a decision by both sides on this,” he said.

Other so-called post-Brexit grace periods are due to come to an end in October, including in relation to health certificates for products of animal origin.

“There’s a real frustration in the business community because we can see technical solutions that are possible, such as a trusted trade scheme, yet there doesn’t seem to be the political will to deliver them.

“Quite frankly, we need both sides to live up to their commitments and find a pragmatic solution to ensure that NI consumers continue to get access to both the choice and affordability in the food they need and yet again the clock is ticking down,” Mr Connolly said.

Politically there was a mixed reaction, with Sinn Féin Assembly member and junior minister Declan Kearney describing the announcement as a “temporary relief” which was to be welcomed.

“It’s now time to move on and maximise the special status that the protocol brings to create jobs and attract investment,” Mr Kearney said. “Political unionists should finally accept the protocol is here to stay as a direct result of Brexit.”

Former DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said the three-month extension was of “little consequence” and claimed its purpose was “to give more time to create an even greater economic problem by diverting trade”.

In the context of the “fundamental problems of the protocol, it is a small deal”, he said.

SDLP MLA Matthew O’Toole said it was “wholly welcome that the EU has today delivered solutions” and said this “positive progress” was “in contrast to the spin and dead-end rhetoric of permanent protest and anger that followed today’s court judgment on the protocol”.

In a separate development on Wednesday, legal challenges against the lawfulness of the Northern Ireland protocol were dismissed by a High Court judge in Belfast.

Mr Justice Adrian Colton rejected arguments that the post-Brexit trading arrangements breached the terms of the 1800 Acts of Union and the 1998 legislation that underpins the Belfast Agreement.