The European Commission is threatening the UK Government with legal action after differences on their post-Brexit trade agreement and more specifically areas involving Northern Ireland have become much more apparent. Both sides agreed to conduct checks on goods moving across the Irish Sea, going from Scotland, Wales and England to Northern Ireland as the latter is still part of the single market. The clause was signed as a measure to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and respect the Good Friday Agreement signed in 1998.
Britain had until the end of March 2021 to implement the checks – but it has now decided to extend the grace period until October.
According to the European Commission, this breaches the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol and international law.
In a damning statement, Maroš Šefčovič, the Vice-President of the Commission, said the move announced by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis amounted to a “violation” of the withdrawal agreement.
He added: “The European Commission will respond to these developments in accordance with the legal means established.”
London responded by saying the UK had warned the Commission earlier this week before going public with the news and argued that the delay was a “temporary” technical step “to provide more time for businesses such as supermarkets and parcel operators to adapt to and implement the new requirements”.
It is also understood the Government is describing this as an “operational easement”, rather than a formal extension of the grace period.
However, the EU’s decision to call out Britain’s move as a “violation” of the withdrawal agreements puts the Northern Ireland Protocol at risk and it is likely to draw outcry – not just from Europe but also from across the Atlantic.
When last year, Mr Lewis told the Commons that the Government intended to break international law in a “limited and specific way” in the later ditched internal market bill, the then US presidential hopeful Joe Biden warned about the need to respect the Good Friday Agreement.
Now that he has become US President, Mr Biden could take an ever harder stance on the issue.
Government trade adviser Shanker Singham told Express.co.uk any suggestion the UK Government might resile from the agreement could damage US-UK relations and even scupper plans for a US-UK trade deal.
Mr Singham, the CEO of economic consultancy Competere, explained earlier this year: “The number one priority which has gone up the list massively in the US with Biden is the proper implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“So any suggestion that the UK Government is going to resile from the Protocol in any way, suspend it or whatever, would be very badly regarded in the US.
“It would not only kill any deal with Washington, it would likely kill the diplomatic relationship between the two countries, actually.”
The Europeans and the Irish, Mr Singham noted, are very good at going to the US, saying that Britain is violating the Good Friday Agreement.
But this is all “nonsense” and “not actually true”.
He continued: “The European vision on how to implement the Good Friday Agreement actually violates the Good Friday Agreement, as they treat Northern Ireland as a European member state, without the consent of the Northern Irish people.
“It is really incumbent on the British Government, who, frankly, needs to do a better job at explaining what I just said.
“The only way to properly implement it is to do it in such a way that you deliver three things: you deliver unfettered access, Northern Ireland to Great Britain, you deliver as free a flow as possible, Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and you deliver no border on the island of Ireland.”
Mr Singham argued that if Britain achieves this, the primary objection of the Biden administration will immediately disappear.
Several senior US officials have recently been warning the UK not to expect a trade deal any time soon.
Charles Kupchan, who advised the National Security Council on European affairs under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, painted a difficult picture of post-Brexit relations between London and Washington.
He told Politico: “When you wanted to get something done with Europe, you made the first or perhaps second call to London. In 2021, you’re still going to call London, but that call will be lower down in the queue.
“Britain doesn’t have a seat at the table anymore.”
However, Mr Singham rubbished the claims, saying: “Any new US President has to focus on domestic policy for the first few months.
“He cannot seem to be leading with foreign policy and I expect Biden to be no different.
“He will be trying to offset the balance of the Trump administration, the anti-Europe approach.
“But at the end of the day, what does it mean for trade policy?”
Mr Singham added: “At the end of the day, a deal with the UK is the only deal a Democrat President like Biden can actually do, because there is no race to the bottom on labour and environment, there is no offshoring of US jobs.”
The trade expert talked to several cross-party politicians in Congress, who all seemed excited about the prospect of a US-UK trade deal.
He noted: “It does seem to be coming from a lot of sources.
“I have had conversations with Richard Neal, who is the Chairman of the Ways and Means Committee.
“Ron Wyden, who will be the Chairman of the Senate Finance committee.
“They all want a deal with the UK. If anything, that really has not changed.”