The British government has announced a unilateral indefinite extension of grace periods delaying the implementation of some controls required by the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Brexit minister David Frost has said that by not introducing checks due to take effect on October 1, he hopes to create space for the EU to deal with his call last July for major changes to the protocol.
Since then, there have been preliminary technical talks between the UK and the EU. These will continue in order to determine if a constructive process can be established to discuss and address the issues identified in the Protocol. Then, to provide space for further potential discussions, and to give certainty and stability to businesses while any such discussions take place, the government will continue to operate the protocol on the existing basis. He said in a written statement to Parliament that this includes grace periods and easements currently in force.
The European Commission said it had “taken note” of Britain’s action, adding that the Withdrawal Agreement was an international treaty and that both sides were legally bound to fulfill their obligations under it. But the European Commission, which has suspended legal action against Britain for its previous breach of the agreement, said it would not immediately start a breach procedure over Britain’s latest unilateral action.
“Our focus remains on identifying long-term, flexible and workable solutions to address the issues related to the practical implementation of the Protocol that citizens and businesses in Northern Ireland face. However, we will not agree to a renegotiation of the Protocol. The Commission continues to work constructively with the UK, in the interest of all communities in northern Ireland.
“Our approach to the Protocol is based on achieving stability, certainty and predictability in line with the objectives of Good Friday [Belfast] Agreement and in order to protect the single market. In this way, Northern Ireland businesses and citizens will reap the full benefits of the Protocol and, in particular, the access to the single market it provides.”
Commission Vice-President Maros Sivkovic will visit Belfast and Dublin later this week and is expected to speak to Lord Frost in the coming days. Addressing the British-Irish Association in Oxford at the weekend, Lord Frost said the EU’s offer to implement the protocol with greater flexibility would not meet Britain’s demands.
He insisted that drastic changes to the protocol’s rules on the transport of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland and how the agreement was administered were necessary.
“I want to make it clear that any response that avoids serious engagement with those ideas, and is only meant to delay the process, will ultimately not work for us,” he said.
Varadkar expects to work
Earlier on Monday, Tanist Leo Varadkar said he expected the EU to agree to the extension in order to allow for “deep and meaningful” talks on the protocol.
Speaking ahead of Lord Frost’s announcement, Mr Varadkar said he expected the existing grace periods to be extended.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “I think there’s a good chance that this will happen, and we’re certainly open to it.” Varadkar was in London for a meeting with British Minister Michael Gove.
Varadkar said he believed the business community, both in the North and the Republic, would welcome the extension.
“It’s important that we use the period of any extension that might really happen to get to work and try to put in place more permanent arrangements to make sure the protocol becomes more viable,” he said.
The protocol effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, and avoids a difficult border with Ireland within the scope of additional bureaucratic barriers to goods in transit from Britain.
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