Boris Johnson will seek to unilaterally change part of his Brexit deal’s Northern Ireland Protocol to better suit British businesses, risking an angry confrontation with Brussels.
With attention fixed on Wednesday’s Budget, ministers announced they would extend a grace period for UK supermarkets and suppliers to help them adapt to new trade barriers in the Irish Sea.
Supermarkets throughout Northern Ireland have struggled with supply issues since Johnson’s Brexit deal was enacted on 1 January – and problems will likely be exacerbated when the current grace period expires at the end of this month.
In a written statement released to MPs on Wednesday, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the government would be “taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues”.
He revealed the grace period would be extended until at least 1 October, in an apparent effort to avoid the worsening of food shortages in Northern Ireland caused by Brexit. London had asked Brussels to extend the grace period until 2023, but the EU has so far declined to do so.
The EU said it is not possible for the UK to seek to unilaterally change a deal that has already been signed and ratified.
Ignoring the international agreement would represent a breach of international law, mirroring last year’s confrontation over the UK’s Internal Market Bill, just days after Lord Frost – who negotiated the Brexit deal – joined the Cabinet and took charge of Brexit affairs.
In his statement, Lewis 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 Agri-food 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.
“In addition, further guidance will be provided later this week on parcel movements from Great Britain to Northern Ireland to provide necessary additional time for traders beyond 1 April. Guidance will also be set out to help address practical problems on soil attached to the movement of plants, seeds, bulbs, vegetables and agricultural machinery.
“And the Government will write to the Northern Ireland Executive to confirm that flexibilities within the Official Controls Regulation 2017/625 are such that no charging regime is required for agri-food goods.”
More to follow.