Brexit: EU could initiate legal action against UK ‘within days’ over ‘violation’ of agreement

EU diplomats agreed to back proposals for legal action on Tuesday

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 10 March 2021 19:56
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Today's daily politics briefing

Brussels could initiate legal action against the UK this week over the government’s decision to unilaterally extend the grace period for fully implementing the Brexit agreement.

The action comes after Marcos Sefcovic, the vice president of the European Commission, said the UK’s move would be a “violation” of the Northern Ireland Protocol and he threatened to respond to the developments with “legal means”.

As tensions escalated over the issue, the Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney also claimed that Britain was a negotiating partner the bloc “simply can’t trust” and accused No 10 of “breaking their commitments again” following last year’s incendiary row over overriding parts of the Brexit deal.

According to Irish broadcaster RTE News, the European Commission is set to issue a formal notice to London in the coming days alongside a letter to the EU-UK Joint Committee – triggering the dispute settlement mechanism contained in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. An EU source did not dispute the account when approached by The Independent.

On Tuesday, diplomats from EU member states also convened and agreed to back proposals for legal action against the Boris Johnson government move to extend the “grace period” to the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The grace period – a temporary relaxation of checks for supermarkets and suppliers – was put in place to allow firms time to adapt to new trade barriers across the Irish Sea and was due to expire at the end of March.

But Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, infuriated Brussels last week as he unilaterally announced the UK would be, “taking several operational steps to avoid a disruptive cliff edges,” and that the grace period would be extended until October.

He 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 agrifood 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.”

Negotiations between Brussels and London over an extension to the grace period continue and ministers had asked the EU to extend it until 2023.

During a No 10 press conference this week, prime minister Mr Johnson insisted, “goodwill and imagination,” were all that was needed to iron out what he he claimed were, “teething problems,” in the agreement.

However, Northern Ireland’s first minister, Arlene Foster, described the Commission’s reaction to the UK move to delay the full implementation of the protocol as “hysterical” and expressed confidence the government would defend any legal action.

She said: “As I understand it from the secretary of state [Brandon Lewis] last week, the attorney general has indicated that the small moves that were made by the United Kingdom government are legal and therefore any legal action that will be taken I’m sure will be fought.

“I hope that doesn’t end up being the case, I think there has been a bit of a hysterical reaction actually to some very small moves.

“You know the position of my party – we believe that we need to see the protocol replaced because it’s the architecture of the protocol which is causing all of these difficulties.”

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