Extension of NI protocol period not breach of law, London claims

Downing Street acting in ‘good faith’ to help supermarkets and parcel operators adapt

Downing Street has defended Britain's unilateral extension of Northern Ireland protocol grace period for goods moving from Great Britain to the North, saying the action is not in breach of international law.

Boris Johnson's official spokesman said the British government remained committed to the protocol and that it informed "at official level" the European Commission and the Irish Government.

“We need to make progress to address the disproportionate impact that some of the aspects of the protocol are having on the citizens of Northern Ireland, contrary to its intended purpose. That’s why, following official-level notification to the commission earlier this week, we’ve set out the temporary technical steps, which largely continue measures already in place to provide more time for businesses such as supermarkets and parcel operators to adapt and to implement the new requirements in the protocol. These are sensible and necessary practical steps to address some of the issues that are being faced but we continue to want to work through the joint committee process,” he said.

“We notified the European Commission at official level earlier this week. We also informed the Irish Government earlier this week and then Lord Frost last night in his call to [Maros] Sevcovic obviously discussed this at length and set out the rationale and the reasons for it.”

The spokesman was unable to say exactly when Brussels and Dublin were informed about the action beyond the fact that it was "at official level earlier this week".

Sausages and soil

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis announced on Wednesday that exemptions on EU health certificates and checks on sausages and other chilled meats which were due to end on March 31st would be extended until at least October 1st.

He promised further guidance later this week on parcel movements and to address “practical problems on soil attached to the movement of plants, seeds, bulbs, vegetables and agricultural machinery”.

The EU-UK joint committee on implementing the protocol is considering Britain's request for an extension of grace periods until 2023. Britain's unilateral step coincides with its former Brexit chief negotiator David Frost taking charge of relations with the EU and succeeding Michael Gove as co-chair of the joint committee.

The British government has hit back at a threat by the European Commission to take legal action over what it sees as a breach of the trade deal and withdrawal agreement, which set out special terms for Northern Ireland to avoid a hard border with the Republic.

“These measures are lawful and consistent with a progressive and good-faith implementation of the protocol,” a government spokeswoman said.

Last year, the British government said it was willing to break international law by unilaterally suspending parts of the protocol but Downing Street said this week’s action was not such a breach.

‘Technical steps’

“These types of operational measures are well-precedented and common in other international trade agreements and are entirely consistent with our intention to fulfil our obligations under the protocol in good faith. These are temporary, technical steps which allow us to continue the measures that are already in place to allow for more time for businesses and supermarkets to adapt to the new requirements under the protocol,” the spokesman said.

The European Parliament ditched plans to set a date for the ratification of the EU’s post-Brexit trade deal with Britain on Thursday.

The deal is not finalised until it is approved by MEPs in a vote, which had been expected to be called for March 24th.

If the European Parliament does not approve the deal by the end of April technically the agreement will lapse and tariffs and quotas kick in.

“We will use this leverage. It’s the turn of the UK government now to calm down and come back to the table,” said Bernd Lange, a German centre-left MEP who chairs the parliament’s trade committee.

“This was a clear break of international law,” he added.