EU poised to reject two-year extension to Northern Ireland grace period

Brussels appears poised to reject the UK’s calls for a two-year extension of the grace periods for post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland.

Multiple Whitehall and EU sources have told The Telegraph that the European Commission is likely to agree to only a three to six-month extension of the arrangements in place for traders moving goods between Britain and the province.

Ahead of a crunch meeting in London on Thursday, EU figures also accused the UK of exploiting an international backlash against Brussels over its aborted move to erect a hard vaccine border on the island of Ireland. 

While the UK argues the controversy has highlighted the need for urgent solutions to the problems being experienced in Northern Ireland, EU diplomats claimed the issue was being used to try and force through a renegotiation of the agreement.

The mooted extension falls far short of Michael Gove’s request for the EU to agree to extend measures in place to reduce red tape on supermarket goods, chilled meats, parcels and medicines until January 2023.

It has also reignited calls from the DUP for Boris Johnson to unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which was established to smooth over trade issues created by the province continuing to apply some EU customs rules at its ports.

Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s Westminster leader, told The Telegraph: “I am disappointed but not surprised by this meagre response from the European Union. I really don’t think the Irish government understands the extent of the difficulty consumers and businesses are experiencing in Northern Ireland. 

“Simply extending the grace period doesn’t resolve any of the difficulties and doesn’t fix the underlying problem, which is that people in Northern Ireland are facing barriers to trade with the United Kingdom. 

“If this is the best the EU can do, by kicking the can down the road a little further and offering no substantive change… then the Prime Minister has a duty to act, and he has the power to act.”

Separately, George Eustice, the the Environment Secretary, wrote to Brussels calling for an “urgent resolution” to unexpected barriers being placed on some shellfish exports

It comes after the EU warned fishermen that some types of live shellfish caught in parts of the UK’s fishing waters could not be exported to the bloc – a move the UK says does not tally with previous assurances it had received.

Appearing before the Commons EU scrutiny committee on Tuesday, Mr Gove told MPs that while he believed that problems in Northern Ireland could be dealt with, the two sides were still “very far from resolving” them. 

He added that while ministers did not wish to trigger Article 16, enabling them to override parts of the protocol causing trade friction, the EU needed to be “practical and pragmatic” to avoid the measure of last resort being used.

“One of the points that I’ve made is that if people put a particular type of integrationist theology ahead of the interests of the people of Northern Ireland, they are not serving the cause of peace and progress in Northern Ireland,” he said. “That is my principal and overriding concern.”

Mr Gove also expressed his alarm that the EU may seek to trigger Article 16 again in the future, warning that its actions last month had opened the “Pandora’s box.”

“Article 16 isn’t there to ensure the EU’s vaccine procurement program can be salvaged,” he said. “There needs to be a realisation on all sides that this isn’t some arcane bit of diplomatic procedure. This has real consequences on the ground.”

His comments will be seen as a thinly-veiled swipe at Ursula von der Leyen and commissioners in Brussels, who have been accused of failing to understand the sensitivities around Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement.

However, ahead of a meeting between Mr Gove and his EU counterpart, Maros Sefcovic, on Thursday, a Whitehall source said the EU was privately indicating it would only accept an extension of between three and six months.

“They are amenable to a three-month extension… whether we can do more we will probably have to wait for this week’s discussions,” the source added.

Two EU sources also confirmed that discussions were taking place over an extension of up to six months. 

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