UK extends grace period for parcels, angering Brussels who say it breaks international law

The UK government has unilaterally extended another of the Irish Sea border grace periods, this time for parcels - a matter that has angered the EU who have accused the government of breaking international law.

It comes a day after the UK extended grace periods for checks on agri-foods.

In a damning statement, Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the commission, said a move announced by Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis to exempt goods coming from Great Britain from checks amounted to a “violation” of the withdrawal agreement.

“This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law,” the statement said. “This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now.”

Northern Ireland has remained a part of the EU's single market for goods so products arriving from GB undergo EU import procedures.

The grace periods mean procedures and checks are not yet fully applied.

The first of these periods was to expire at the end of March but the UK has said they will be extended until October.

The UK has asked for a two-year extension to all grace periods for Irish Sea border checks including those on food, parcels, plants and medicines, but Brussels is still resisting on this matter. Lewis said the government had to act to protect the interests of Northern Ireland and keep shelves stocked.

“We are taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps which reflect the simple reality that there is more time needed to adapt and implement new requirements as we continue our discussions with the EU,” he said.

The commission said it had not been informed of the decision in advance of Lewis informing parliament and suggested the move would be a hammer-blow to trust between the two sides after an already difficult period.

The commission statement said: “It is equally disappointing that the UK government has resorted to such unilateral action without informing the EU’s co-chair of the joint committee. Issues relating to the Protocol should be dealt with through the structures provided for by the Withdrawal Agreement.

Checks on goods arriving from Great Britain have disrupted supply chains and triggered protests from Northern Ireland’s unionist parties, which say the protocol undermines the region’s status in the UK.Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the EU could not trust the UK in post-Brexit talks.

He said progress had been made on the protocol and the timing of the UK's moves could not be worse.

But UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the problems were technical and "eminently solvable".

Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland's first minister, told a news conference the British government had a commitment to protect the UK's internal market.

The DUP leader accused the Irish government of ignoring unionist concerns over the NI Protocol.

But her deputy first minister, Sinn Fein's Vice-President Michelle O'Neill, accused the British government "acting in bad faith" over the protocol.

Meanwhile, the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium welcomed the news.

They said: “We welcome the extension of the grace periods in both time and scope, even if it is unilaterally, to allow us to continue to give NI households the choice and affordability.”

Disruption to supermarket and parcel deliveries and the continued refusal of some high street chains to deliver in Northern Ireland have heightened tensions among loyalists and unionist parties who have vowed a campaign of peaceful resistance.