(Photo by ARIS OIKONOMOU/AFP via Getty Images)

Will the UK back down?

The EU start legal action against Britain over the Northern Ireland Protocol

The EU Commission has formally issued the UK government notice that it plans to bring legal action against it.

Brussels says the UK’s unilateral extension of certain grace periods in the Northern Ireland Protocol two weeks ago amounts to a breach of the agreement. The notice makes no reference to the Commission’s own unilateral suspension of part of the agreement when in January it briefly sought to block vaccine exports to the UK.

The EU has demanded that the UK “carry out swift remedial actions to restore compliance” and has given the UK one month to respond. If the European Commission’s vice president, Maroš  Šefčovič isn’t happy with the outcome, the EU suggests that it might demand payment and ultimately suspend parts of the previous Withdrawal Agreement or the recently signed Trade and Cooperation Agreement which could mean imposing tariffs on the UK.

One of the arguments for Brexit was that membership of the EU was not a static proposition, but an ever-changing legal framework imposed from abroad. One of the consequences of leaving Northern Ireland a de facto part of the EU is that this is still partly the case.

The UK has extended grace periods preventing checks on a number of items moving from Great Britain to Ulster, but there is further legislation planned to come into force on April 21 which will create a headache for businesses selling in Northern Ireland. 

New EU rules on food imports will require products that contain meat and pasteurised milk and some egg products imported into the bloc to obtain a vet-stamped export health certificate. 

Policy experts told the FT that a packet of cheese and onion crisps, which contain cheese powder, will require pages of “attestation” documents from the shipper which includes the source of the cheese. A number of businesses suggested it would make selling their products into the EU, including Northern Ireland, unviable. 

So far the government has replied that the measures are “lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol” but will respond properly in due course. Whilst we wait for that, an indication of whether the UK is looking to implement the Protocol in full or dismantle it entirely should be discerned by whether Whitehall starts telling businesses to get ready for these new rules in April. The conveyor-belt of EU legislation which affects intra-UK trade surely means the government must decide one way or the other.

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