European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said the British decision to take unilateral action on trade rules relating to Northern Ireland marks the second time Prime Minister Boris Johnson has declared his intention to breaching international law.
“This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now,” Sefcovic said in a statement.
The move puts the U.K. and EU on a collision course after a testing first two months of their new relationship. Sefcovic is held talks on Wednesday with U.K. minister, David Frost, the former chief Brexit negotiator who replaced Cabinet Secretary Michael Gove last month as minister responsible for relations with the EU.
On a day when most of Westminster was focused on the budget, the British government said it will waive customs paperwork on food entering Northern Ireland until October, beyond the April 1 deadline it had agreed with the EU. The government believes that supermarkets and traders aren’t ready for the new rules. The U.K. had previously asked for the deadline to be extended until 2023, but the bloc hasn’t signed off on that proposal.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said in a written ministerial statement that the government “is taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues.”
“These recognize that appropriate time must be provided for businesses to implement new requirements,” he said.
The spat is a reminder of the complexities flowing from the Brexit divorce deal, which effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the bloc’s customs area. Last month, EU commission briefly threatened to trigger an emergency clause suspending parts of the deal as part of its control of vaccine exports.
Raising the faint prospect of the introduction of border checks on the island of Ireland, that sparked outrage in Belfast, Dublin, and London. With this latest maneuver, it’s Johnson’s turn to raise the stakes.
Trade across the Irish Sea has been one of the most contentious features of Britain’s post-Brexit relationship with the EU, as companies have had to grapple with new paperwork and frictions on commerce.
Last September, the U.K. considered breaking the terms of the Brexit divorce agreement relating to Northern Ireland, only to back down. With a trade deal agreed on Dec. 24, the EU has less leverage now, but can nonetheless start legal proceedings through the terms of the accord.
By keeping the land border with Ireland free of checkpoints, both sides hoped to prevent a return to the era of the Troubles. But it came at a price: Goods arriving from the rest of the U.K. would be subject to checks and extra paperwork as they crossed the Irish Sea from mainland Britain.
Members of Johnson’s Conservative party and unionist politicians in Northern Ireland have called for the deal to be ripped up, as it treats the region differently from the rest of the U.K.
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