EU expected to extend NI Protocol grace period on chilled meats, with caveats

NI Secretary says British have yet to agree EU terms for additional time

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. File photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis. File photograph: Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

 

The European Union is expected to agree to an extension to a grace period that would allow the continued export of unfrozen meats to Northern Ireland from Britain, a contentious point in the North’s post-Brexit arrangements.

London requested that a grace period set to expire next week be extended until the end of September as a temporary solution to a dispute dubbed the “sausage war” which overshadowed Britain’s post-Brexit debut on the world stage at the recent G7 in Cornwall.

At a meeting on Wednesday the European Commission’s lead on relations with the UK Maroš Šefcovic advised the 27 member states to agree to extend the grace period, which had been agreed last year to give Britain time to implement the so-called Protocol.

The 27 provisionally backed the suggestion, but with caveats that are to be worked out in negotiations with Britain over the coming days, The Irish Times understands.

A British source said London is awaiting the details of any European Commission agreement to extend the grace period including whether conditions are attached.

However, an early response to the UK’s request for a three-month extension would be viewed as an “encouraging signal”.

The issue arose because the EU has no provision for unfrozen meats to be imported into the Single Market from countries that do not follow its rules, because fresh meat is a high-risk item to animal and human health.

Under the Protocol, Northern Ireland has remained in line with EU standards in order to avoid the need for checks across the island, meaning that checks must be imposed on goods arriving there from Britain.

As a condition for agreeing to continue with imports of fresh meats, the member states will insist that Britain must continue to follow EU rules on agriculture for the duration.

In addition, the 27 will insist that the extension can only be granted to allow both sides more time to find a permanent solution.

The EU has proposed that Britain should formally agree to align on plant and animal rules, which it says would make obsolete 80 per cent of checks currently required into Northern Ireland. However, London has ruled this out as contrary to the goals of Brexit as it would require accepting EU standards it has no role in setting.

The European Commission has come under pressure from national capitals to ensure that Britain implements the post-Brexit arrangements agreed last year in order to protect the Single Market from risks or unfair competition if goods enter via Northern Ireland that have not had to conform to EU standards.

But Mr Šefcovic told the member states on Wednesday that there was a need to avoid raising tensions as the peak of the marching season approaches. The issue is of symbolic significance, though major supermarkets in the North have indicated that they are able to source fresh meats locally without problems.

Westminster

The move came as Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs he is confident that Britain and the EU would agree changes to the operation of the protocol. But Downing Street said it had not yet agreed to align temporarily with EU food standards if a grace period for chilled meats was extended.

Mr Lewis told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee that almost every business group he had met in the North said they had issues with the protocol they wanted to see resolved.

“We have been very clear that the current position of the protocol is not sustainable and we need to rectify that and I am optimistic and confident we will get that done in the time ahead,” he said.

“I think it is reasonable for anyone to take the view that there will be changes, there has to be.”

Britain has asked the EU for an extension until the end of this year of a grace period on restrictions on chilled meats from Great Britain entering Northern Ireland. RTÉ News reported on Wednesday that European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic had advised member-states that they should grant the extension quickly.

According to the report, the member-states agreed to grant the request on condition that Britain continues to align with EU food standards for the duration of the extension and that both sides would seek a long-term solution for food consignments crossing the Irish Sea.

Asked if Britain had agreed to such a temporary alignment of food safety standards, Boris Johnson’s official spokesman said that discussions with the EU were ongoing and that no final resolution had been reached.

At the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the DUP’s Ian Paisley told Mr Lewis that any changes to the protocol must be significant.

“I don’t think it should be lost on anyone as to why there is a requirement for significant changes, and I hope that those changes, which you are tempting us with, and putting in front of us, that they are actually significant and they will not be tinkerings, but they will be changes which address this discrimination aspect,” he said.