EU takes legal action against the UK on extending grace periods for Northern Ireland supermarkets

Mon 15 Mar 2021
Posted by: Noelle McElhatton
Trade News

The European Union has formally launched legal action against the UK over an alleged breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The NI Protocol (NIP) is a pillar of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement with the EU.

Designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, the NIP instead moves the trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK to the Irish Sea.

Taking effect on 1 January at the end of the transition period, the NIP means Northern Ireland has dual customs status: remaining within the EU customs union while also being part of UK customs territory.

Irish Sea border

Under the NI 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 new requirement was delayed with the EU’s agreement until 1 April 2021 to give time for firms – including major supermarkets – to prepare.

However after discussions with the EU-UK Joint Committee on extending these grace periods, the UK announced on 3 March that it was unilaterally extending them – prompting the EU's legal response.

‘Rectify and refrain’

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, today wrote to David Frost, the Cabinet minister in charge of Brexit, calling on the UK to “rectify and refrain from putting into practice” this decision.

As a result of the legal action, the UK could face the European Court of Justice and a fine, as well as trade sanctions.

“The UK must stop acting unilaterally and stop violating the rules it has signed up to,” an EU official told the FT.

The official noted that some practical issues for firms moving goods from GB to NI were “direct consequences of choices made by UK government”, such as not joining the EU’s common veterinary area on food checks. 

The UK insists that extending grace periods does not breach the Withdrawal Agreement nor international law.