Tensions between EU and UK inflamed over Northern Ireland

EU-UK relations have been plunged into a new crisis after Brussels warned Britain would break international law by taking unilateral steps to ease the impact of Brexit on Northern Irish businesses.

Tensions were inflamed by the UK’s announcement on Wednesday that it would extend temporary rule exemptions intended to help companies adjust to new trading arrangements agreed as part of the two sides’ Brexit divorce treaty.

The row echoes the crisis in EU-UK relations last year when Britain moved to override the Brexit divorce deal over concerns regarding Northern Ireland. That incident led the commission to launch legal action, with the dispute finally defused by the new post-Brexit trade deal struck at the end of December.

Relations deteriorated further at the end of January when the EU acted unilaterally to secure Covid-19 vaccine supplies by triggering an override clause in the Northern Ireland agreement without consulting London or Dublin. The move was rapidly rescinded but sparked accusations of bad faith from the British side.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner in charge of relations with the UK, warned that he would raise his “strong concerns” in a call on Wednesday evening with his UK counterpart Lord David Frost.

“As ever, we remain firm on our political and legal obligations,” he wrote on Twitter.

The measures announced by the UK include an extension to the grace period before health certificates are required for agrifood shipments from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The UK wants to extend the grace period until the beginning of October, instead of expiring at the end of the first quarter as agreed with the EU.

UK prime minister Boris Johnson said the unilateral action was justified by the government’s commitment to Northern Ireland’s place in the UK single market, including for food supplies.

“We leave nothing off the table to ensure we get this right,” he told MPs.

After the half-hour call with Sefcovic, the UK government said Frost had explained that the measures were “temporary technical steps” and were “entirely consistent” with the UK’s intention to discharge its obligations under the protocol “in good faith”. The two sides agreed to remain in close contact, the UK statement added.

However, from the EU point of view, the UK’s unilateral moves marked a damaging break with the earlier attempts to find a collaborative solution to Northern Ireland issues, and they will undermine mutual trust.

Dublin joined Brussels in condemning the British move. Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said the step “undermines” Britain’s commitment “to the proper implementation” of the Brexit deal. 

“A unilateral announcement is deeply unhelpful to building the relationship of trust and partnership that is central to the implementation of the protocol,” he said, referring to the part of the 2019 Brexit treaty, which keeps Northern Ireland aligned to the EU single market and customs union.

In its written ministerial statement, the UK said the steps it was taking “recognise that appropriate time must be provided for businesses to implement new requirements, and support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland”.

But one EU diplomat responded: “British diplomacy is very predictable these days: choose confrontation.”

Brussels signalled that it was considering legal action against the UK.

“The European Commission will respond to these developments in accordance with the legal means established by the withdrawal agreement and the Trade and Co-operation Agreement,” it said.

Those agreements include dispute-settlement arrangements based around arbitration panels, with the possibility of the wronged party hitting the other with tariffs on trade. 

The UK’s new move “is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law”, the commission said in its statement, adding that it amounted to “a violation of the relevant substantive provisions of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the good faith obligation under the withdrawal agreement.”

A UK official said the government’s actions “simply reflect the reality that more time is needed for businesses to adapt to and implement new requirements”.

Michael Gove, the UK’s previous representative in post-Brexit relations with the EU, presented a list of demands to the bloc last month, notably for extensions of temporary flexibilities for supermarkets and their suppliers and permissions for trade in chilled meats to be extended until January 2023.

Sefcovic, in his reply in February, expressed a willingness to “find pragmatic solutions” to UK grievances.

An EU national diplomat said he was “really surprised” by the new UK move, saying that the commission had indicated in a recent briefing that both sides were working constructively on resolving problems.

Additional reporting by George Parker in London and Laura Noonan in Dublin

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