DUBLIN – Britain intends to unilaterally extend grace periods on full enforcement of EU customs requirements at Northern Ireland ports for at least six months, the U.K. government has announced.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons in a written statement that measures due to come into force on April 1 under the terms of the U.K.’s post-Brexit trade agreement with the EU must be postponed until October 1.
“As part of the pragmatic and proportionate implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, the government is taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges as engagement with the EU continues through the Joint Committee,” Lewis wrote.
He said maintaining the current halfway house on EU customs enforcement would “support the effective flow of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.”
He said under Britain’s new plans, starting in October, export health certificates on food products would be required “alongside the rollout of the Digital Assistance Scheme.” This initiative would streamline existing cross-border paperwork requirements into a new online platform still being developed.
Lewis said the government later this week would officially delay other Northern Ireland border requirements previously agreed with the EU and due to come into effect on April 1. These included customs enforcement on parcels and the potential for new charges on some agri-food products.
Britain’s decision to delay previously agreed deadlines, though widely expected, came with no immediate sign that the European Commission had agreed to the changes. At the latest February 24 meeting of the EU-U.K. Joint Committee, set up to resolve issues with the agreement, EU officials stressed the need to stick to existing timetables.
Northern Ireland retailers breathed a collective sigh of relief in response to the U.K.’s announcement.
“The retail industry welcomes the extension of the grace periods in both time and scope, even if it is unilaterally, to allow us to continue to give Northern Ireland households the choice and affordability they need. We now have short-term stability,” said Aodhán Connolly, chief executive of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium.
Measures supposed to be fully observed starting April 1 include increased physical SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary) checks on food products. These had been waived for the first three months to give Northern Ireland supermarkets and their largely England-based suppliers time to adjust to the introduction of mostly paperwork-based customs hurdles at Northern Irish points of entry.
Even that partial enforcement of new “sea border” requirements on goods coming from Britain starting in January proved too confusing for many suppliers, who reduced, paused or ended shipments to Northern Ireland customers.
Grocers facing gaps on their shelves have scrambled to source new suppliers, mostly from the Republic of Ireland. The trade deal’s Northern Ireland protocol leaves the Irish border barrier-free.
However, Britain remains by far the most important source for Northern Ireland retailers and manufacturers. According to the most recent figures, more than £10 billion in goods annually are shipped to Northern Ireland from Britain, more than twice the value of goods coming from the Irish Republic and continental Europe combined.