THE Commission launched legal proceedings against London this week for what is described as a ‘deliberate’ breach of international law over its unilateral decision to extend the Brexit grace period for food imports to Northern Ireland.
The announcement follows the decision by the UK government to extend the grace period for post-Brexit agri-food movements (products of animal origin, composite products, plants etc) without official EU certification from the rest of the UK transiting to Northern Ireland until October 1st.
Northern Ireland business groups had been pressing for an extension of the soft-touch regulatory regime on some goods – originally due to expire at the end of March – ahead of additional red tape requirements, such as supermarkets producing export health certificates for all shipments of animal products under the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol.
Speaking in the House of Commons in early March, Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis announced a series of temporary operational steps’ as part of the ‘pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol’ so as to ‘avoid disruptive cliff edges, as engagement with the EU continues through the joint committee.’
During his address, the Conservative politician told MPs that he had heard the concerns that had been raised by people and businesses in Northern Ireland and ‘we’re sensitive to the economic, societal and political realities.’
But the move has sparked ire in Dublin and Brussels, as both sides said the UK was in breach of EU law by not complying with the checks and controls agreed within the Protocol.
In terms of the infringement procedure launched this week, Brussels sent a letter to the UK to formally notify London of its alleged breach of the Protocol, which may pave the way for sanctions in the form of a daily fine, if the issue is not resolved.
The so-called letter of formal notice marks the beginning of a formal infringement process, with London expected to carry out swift remedial actions to restore compliance with the terms of the Protocol.
The Commission also sent a second correspondence, saying the UK government breached the provisions under the Withdrawal Agreement. Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic sent the political letter to David Frost, co-chair of the so-called joint committee, calling on the UK government to refrain from putting its proposed extension of the Protocol into practice.
The Slovak diplomat said the recent move by London was a violation of the duty of good faith and in breach of the mutual trust and spirit of co-operation that had been rebuilt in the last months of 2020, after the uncertainty created by the UK Internal Market Bill.
He invited his British counterpart to enter bilateral consultations in the joint committee in good faith, in order to reach a mutually agreed solution as quickly as possible.
The moves announced by Brandon Lewis were the second time in the space of six months that the UK government was set to breach international law. The UK has denied breaking any rules.
An Taoiseach Micheál Martin has stated that unilateral action to disapply or not to implement aspects of the Protocol does nothing but ‘corrode trust’, the only basis on which sustainable long-term solutions can be found.
Speaking during an online address to the Washington-based Brookings Institution, as part of his virtual appearances in the run-up to St Patrick’s Day, the Cork man said a lack of trust ‘exacerbates uncertainty and instability; two things Northern Ireland can well do without.’
London now has one month to respond to the letter of formal notice. If there is no satisfactory response, Brussels could issue a reasoned opinion, which could potentially end up before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which is free to impose fines, if it sees fit.
• Rose O’Donovan is
editor-in-chief of the
Brussels-based Agra Facts.