European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic has accused the UK government of breaching international law after unilaterally extending the grace period afforded to checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain as laid out in the Brexit agreement.
The Brexit deal agreed in December left Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for goods, meaning products imported from Great Britain were subject to EU border checks.
The grace period allowed for transition into those checks, meaning procedures are not yet fully in force.
In a statement on Wednesday, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis announced that the UK government was unilaterally extending the grace periods from the end of March until October 1.
Mr Lewis said the government was taking the “temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges” and that appropriate notice must be given to businesses in order to “support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
The European Commission response is that the UK government has breached the Brexit agreement, claiming the unilateral move contravenes the legal requirement for both parties to agree on changes to the protocol.
Mr Sefcovic released a statement on Wednesday saying the EU “expressed strong concerns over the UK’s unilateral action, as this amounts to a violation of the relevant substantive provisions of the Protocol on Northern Ireland and the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement.
This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law,” Sefcovic warned: “This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now.”
Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill was critical of the British government’s actions:
“The EU and the British government need to work together and this appears to be another unilateral attempt to override what has been agreed,” she said.
“What everyone should be focused on is achieving agreement to find solutions to the issues that are outstanding, but it’s very clear the protocol must be made to work.”
First Minister Arlene Foster has repeatedly called for Boris Johnson to scrap the Protocol and reunify the United Kingdom. Tweeting today, she said the Conservative government “must demonstrate its preparedness to put permanent solutions in place which protect the UK internal market.”
Speaking in the House of Commons this afternoon, Mr Lewis said the UK would be holding a meeting with Mr Sefcovic later today to discuss the issues at hand.