As the U.K. left the EU single market on 31 December, 2020, a trade border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland came into effect. While Northern Irish goods entering Great Britain are granted “unfettered access,” British goods to Northern Ireland need to comply with the EU’s requirements. The U.K. and EU made temporary agreements, known as “grace periods,” that allow some essential sectors, such as food, to enter Northern Ireland without completing new customs processes until April 2021. This measure was intended to give British businesses time to adapt the newly divided rules. However, it seems the three-month grace period isn’t enough, and the U.K. are now demanding an extension until 1 January, 2023.
The British Cabinet Office Minister, Michael Gove, wrote a letter to the Vice-President of the European Commission, Maroš Šefčovič, that described the extension as “an urgent reset to put the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland, first.” He also threatened that the U.K. might invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol, allowing unilateral suspension of the Protocol’s operation. The EU is aware of the U.K.’s concerns and threats. Šefčovič responded that the EU would “immediately work intensively to find solutions.” The Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, told RTÉ that he was “open to advocating for modest extensions or grace periods when appropriate” and the Republic of Ireland would “make sure the protocol works as smoothly as it can.”
Although both sides are positive about extending grace periods, such an action doesn’t help solve the actual problem. It gives British businesses more time to adopt new rules, but the rules are mostly unclear. There are technical issues such as how the U.K. will provide new authorizations for British retailers to “export” to Northern Ireland and if the EU will accept those authorizations. More importantly, there are political issues. As is indicated in Gove’s letter, the protocol’s implementation has triggered shock and anger “across all political parties, civic society and business organizations.” The Democratic Unionist Party, the largest party in Northern Ireland Assembly, stated they would work on scrapping the protocol.
To some extent, the protocol is to maintain the north-south tie at the expense of the Northern Ireland-Great Britain tie, while the latter is also strong, if not more vital. According to NISRA, Northern Ireland’s purchases from Great Britain are nearly twice its imports from Ireland, the rest of the EU and the rest of the world combined. This is particularly important because the protocol requires Northern Ireland to comply with separated rules before purchasing from Great Britain. Grace periods are only temporary delays of the separated rules’ enforcements.
There is an urgent need for clarified phrasing and implementation of the EU regulations. If grace periods extend to 2023, that will only leave two years of EU border checks in many sectors before Northern Ireland’s first vote to decide if it wants to withdraw. It will give little time to test whether the Protocol is functional. The two sides need to revoke grace periods and fully enforce the border rules in early stages to observe their operations. Also, they can do this in several phases to ensure a smooth transition. For example, they can implement parcel regulations in the next few weeks and then move to the food sectors.
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