On Wednesday, the European Commission and the UK Government agreed on a number of measures to address some of the most pressing issues related to the implementation of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The legally binding Protocol, an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement, has not been comprehensively applied by the UK to date and faces significant opposition from unionist quarters in the North.
Speaking of granting the extension, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said that “our work is about ensuring that the hard-earned gains of the Good Friday Agreement – peace and stability in Northern Ireland – are protected, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU Single Market. Therefore, we have spared no effort in trying to mitigate some of the challenges that have arisen in the implementation of the Protocol.”
The main provision agreed was the extension of the grace period for the movement of chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland for three months from 1 July to 30 September 2021. In agreeing to the extension, the Commission, backed by the EU’s 27 Member States, acknowledge that the Protocol has had impacts on the movement of certain goods across the Irish Sea for businesses who have, so far, not fully adapted their supply chains to the post-Brexit trading conditions.
The Commission is of the view that these extra three months will give supermarkets in Northern Ireland enough time to finalise their supply chain adaptions for such products, in line with the sectoral guidance notesit had published in March 2020. Šefčovič was keen to stress “we are not issuing a blank cheque. This solution is of a temporary nature, to which strong conditions are attached.”
Under EU rules, chilled meat products such as sausages and fresh mince cannot be imported into the single market from third countries unless they align their food safety regulations. As the North remains aligned with the EU’s single market under the terms of the Protocol, trade of such products across the Irish Sea from Britain into Northern Ireland was set to be restricted from the end of June, when the original grace period was due to end under the current post-Brexit EU-UK arrangements.
Responding to the EU’s approval, UK Government’s Brexit Minister, David Frost, welcomed the news, saying that “this is a positive first step, but we still need to agree a permanent solution – Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom and its consumers should be able to enjoy products they have bought from Great Britain for years.” To date, the UK has rejected the idea of alignment to EU rules, insisting that a permanent solution is only possible if the European Union recognises UK standards as equivalent.
Yet, speaking to the Northern Ireland assembly this week, Mr. Šefčovič rejected the notion that any equivalence decision would fully remove the need for border checks, comparing it with an EU equivalence agreement it has with New Zealand. Meanwhile, measures relating to medicines, guide dogs, motor insurance and the movement of animals were also agreed to resolve some of the day-to-day problems that had emerged in recent months. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said they were “real-life solutions to real-life issues from the EU – a positive practical approach to the Protocol.”