The dispute between the UK and the EU over customs formalities in Northern Ireland is escalating. The British government announced on Wednesday that it would extend relief for deliveries to Northern Irish supermarkets until the beginning of October. This transition phase was supposed to expire at the end of March, and talks between the government and the EU Commission about a postponement did not bring any result for the time being. The responsible Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič accused London of violating the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol and international law with this “unilateral action”.
The process represents “a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed so far,” complained the Slovak, and the fact that London had not informed the EU in advance was “also disappointing”. Šefčovič threatened legal action and wanted to call Lord David Frost, the minister responsible for relations with the EU in London, late on Wednesday evening.
The dispute is sparked by the provisions of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement. It is intended to prevent customs officers from having to control trucks between the Republic of Ireland and the British Northern Ireland. Therefore, the protocol stipulates that Northern Ireland will continue to adhere to EU product rules and customs regulations despite Brexit. The logical consequence, however, is that deliveries of goods from England, Wales or Scotland to Northern Ireland must be checked. After all, everything that lands in Northern Irish ports can then be transported to the south of Ireland and thus the EU internal market without further controls.
Transitional periods expire at the end of the month
The new customs bureaucracy has already resulted in a shortage of goods in Northern Irish shops. There are even transition periods until the end of March. Until then, freight forwarders who transport animal food from Scotland, Wales or England to Northern Irish supermarkets will not have to prove that the goods meet EU health standards. And parcels to Northern Ireland whose value is less than 160 euros do not require a customs declaration. That will change after the transition phases come to an end.
But business associations and the British government warn that companies need more time to prepare – and are calling for this and other transition periods to be extended until at least the beginning of 2023. But that is far too long for the EU. In addition, EU representative Šefčovič is demanding that the British first fully implement some of the obligations of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Control posts at the Northern Irish ports are not yet fully operational.
Until last week, Michael Gove was the contact person for Šefčovič in the British government. But Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided that his confidante Frost would take over this role at the beginning of March. Frost had already led the negotiations on the trade agreement with Brussels and is an advocate of an uncompromising line. He now lives up to this reputation. The government can unilaterally extend the transition period because the controls at the ports are carried out by British customs officers. London can therefore instruct officials not to ask truck drivers for additional customs documents even after the end of this month. Johnson also wants to expand the transition phase for parcel post to Northern Ireland on its own.
The Republicans are mad, the Unionists delighted
It is the second time that London has decided to override the provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Last summer, the government presented a law that would have had this effect, but later defused the draft.
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney called the new move “anything but helpful”. Northern Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Michelle O’Neill made a similar statement. She belongs to Sinn Féin, the republican party, which is close to Ireland is important. Arlene Foster, the provincial head of government, welcomed the move. Forster is the head of the unionist party DUP, which prefers close ties with Great Britain. The SPD MEP Bernd Lange, the chairman of the trade committee, called the announcement made by London to the SZ a “very aggressive act” and “not a good start for David Frost”.