EU delays ratifying trade deal after UK extends checks deadline for goods moving to Northern Ireland

Thu 4 Mar 2021
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

Tensions between the UK and EU rose after the European parliament announced this evening (4 March) that it was postponing the ratification of the trade deal agreed in December.

The EU move was in response to the UK unilaterally granting longer grace periods for checks on agri-food products and parcels moving between GB and Northern Ireland - an action the EU claims breaches international law.

The European parliament was expected to vote on 25 March, the deal having been ratified by the UK parliament on 30 December. 

Delay for supermarkets

A postponement of new controls for supermarkets and their suppliers was due to end on 1 April, but this deadline was extended by Lord Frost in his first act as minister for UK-EU relations. 

The grace period will now continue until 1 October.

Parcels 'temporary arrangement'

On parcel movements, the government today (4 March) published guidance that customs delarations continue to be not required for parcels being sent from GB to NI, calling this a 'continued temporary arrangement'.

The exception to this is for parcels containing prohibited, restricted and business-to-business goods worth more than £135. 

'Avoiding cliff edge'

A government statement said the move was “part of the pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol” and said they were “temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues through the Joint Committee”.

Under the NI Protocol, firms sending products of animal origin to Northern Ireland will be legally required to complete Export Health Certificates (EHC), which need to be signed off by an official veterinarian.

However, as the Daily Update reported, the implementation of this new requirement was delayed with the EU’s agreement until 1 April 2021 to give time for firms – including major supermarkets – to prepare.

Yet the new rules are considered more onerous than expected and supermarkets and suppliers have warned that they need more time, Sky reported.

Frost's harder line

Cabinet minister Michael Gove, who was previously in charge of managing the relationships with the EU, last month requested a two year extension to the grace period. The EU pushed back against it but was said to be considering a shorter grace period.

Gove’s replacement by Lord Frost is seen by some as the UK taking a harder line in relations with the EU.

Frost informed his counterpart, European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, of the UK’s proposed actions during a call on Wednesday (3 March) evening. A UK government spokesperson said “official-level notification” was made to the commission earlier this week.

NI Protocol 'violation'

Šefčovič, who sits on the Joint Committee overseeing the trade deal's implementation, said the move amounted to “a violation of the relevant substantive provisions” of the NI Protocol. 

According to John Campbell, the BBC’s NI economics and business editor, Lord Frost explained that the measures taken “were temporary, technical steps which largely continued measures already in place” to allow businesses time to adapt.

They were described as “the minimum necessary steps” and were precedented in other international trade agreements.

Loyalist action

In a worrying development, the Guardian reports that some Northern Irish loyalist groups no longer recognise the validity of the Good Friday Agreement. 

The Loyalist Communities Council, an umbrella group that represents the views of the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando, wrote a letter to Boris Johnson and Ireland’s Taoiseach (prime minister), Micheál Martin, warning of “permanent destruction” of the 1998 peace agreement if there are no changes to post-transition trade arrangements for Northern Ireland.

With the trade deal yet to be ratified by the European parliament, the “timing couldn’t be worse” according to Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney. 

Ireland was lobbying for moves to ease trade into NI but the UK’s unilateral action “means an agreement with the EU is now impossible”.

According to the Irish Times, Coveney said he “strongly advised” Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis against the UK’s unilateral decision.