Boris Johnson’s government has announced that it will unilaterally change a part of the Northern Ireland Brexit deal to better to suit British businesses – risking yet another confrontation with Brussels.
While most of Westminster had its eyes on the Budget, ministers announced they would extend a grace period for UK supermarkets and suppliers to adapt to new trade barriers across the Irish Sea.
Supermarkets in Northern Ireland have struggled with supply issues since Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal came into force on 1 January – but the problem is expected to worsen when an existing grace period ends.
The temporary relaxation of checks had been due to expire at the end of this month.
But in a written statement put out on Wednesday, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the government would be “taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU”.
He said the grace period would continue until at least 1 October – an apparent bid to stave off the intensification of food shortages caused in Northern Ireland by Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal.
The UK government had asked for the EU to extend the grace period until 2023, but Brussels has so far declined to do so.
The EU says it is not possible for the UK to unilaterally change a deal it has already signed and ratified.
Ignoring the international agreement would likely be a breach of international law, echoing the showdown over the UK’s Internal Market Bill last year. The EU and UK had been discussing the issue at the so-called “joint committee” set up to govern the deal.
The announcement comes just days after Lord Frost, who negotiated the deal, joined the Cabinet and took charge of Brexit matters.
In his statement, Mr Lewis said: “For supermarkets and their suppliers, as part of the operational plan the UK committed to at the UK-EU Joint Committee on 24 February, the current Scheme for Temporary Agri-food Movements to Northern Ireland (STAMNI) will continue until 1 October. Certification requirements will then be introduced in phases alongside the roll out of the Digital Assistance Scheme.”
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