EU pauses legal action against the UK to provide 'space to reflect' on proposals on NI Protocol

Wed 28 Jul 2021
Posted by: William Barns-Graham
Trade News

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The EU yesterday (27 July) agreed to suspend legal proceedings against the UK to provide ‘space to reflect’ on British proposals on the future implementation of the NI Protocol.

The move follows a UK request for a ‘standstill’ period last week.

Standstill

Lord Frost, the minister for EU relations, last week requested that current grace periods on trade between Britain and Northern Ireland be extended and ongoing legal action from the EU frozen.

Although the EU rejected suggestions for an overhaul of the Withdrawal Agreement treaty, which includes the Protocol, the freezing of legal action is an indication that relations may be improving.

Assessment

Speaking to Reuters, an EU Commission spokesperson said the bloc was “carefully assessing” the UK’s request for a standstill.

They said: "In order to provide the necessary space to reflect on these issues and find durable solutions to the implementation of the Protocol, we have decided, at this stage, not to move to the next stage of the infringement procedure started in March."

Background

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

Implementation of this requirement had been delayed, with the EU’s agreement, until 1 April 2021 to give firms – including major supermarkets – time to prepare.

The UK held discussions via the EU-UK Joint Committee to delay this further, but after no decision was reached, it decided to unilaterally extend the grace periods on 3 March, so that certificates were not required until 1 October.

The EU promptly launched legal action against the UK accusing it of breaching the Withdrawal Agreement.

Good faith

Had the EU continued its legal proceedings, the UK could have faced a European Court of Justice fine and trade sanctions.

But according to EuroNews, the EU spokesperson said the suspension of action demonstrated it was “ready to address all the issues arising in its [the Protocol’s] practical implementation, in a spirit of good faith and cooperation”.

Constructive

The BBC has reported that the UK government confirmed it had received a "constructive reply from the Commission".

The government spokesperson added: "We look forward to engaging in talks with the EU in the weeks ahead to progress the proposals in our command paper.”

Precedent

It’s not the first time legal proceedings by the EU against the UK have been halted.

In April this year there was a postponement of action following outbreaks of violence in Northern Ireland, which saw loyalist and nationalist rioters attacking police.

The Northern Ireland Protocol stipulates that customs checks on goods must take place now the UK has left the bloc.