European Parliament Postpones Brexit Deal Vote Amid Fury Over The UK's Northern Ireland Protocol Plan
The European Parliament has shelved plans to confirm a date for ratifying the European Union's trade deal with the UK amid anger in Brussels with the government's decision to unilaterally change the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Leaders of the EU parliament's political groups were due to meet on Thursday morning to agree a date for voting on the post-Brexit trade agreement struck with the UK in December.
The trade deal was implemented provisionally on January 1st but must secure approval from Members of the European Parliament before it becomes permenant.
However, the parliament's leaders decided to postpone a decision after the EU reacted furiously to the government on Wednesday announcing that it would take its own steps to alter the post-Brexit treaty for Northern Ireland, designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
"MEPs were set to agree a date in March this morning, but now want to wait to see where the UK is going and whether the Commission will take legal action," an EU source told PoliticsHome.
Bernd Lange, a senior German MEP, today tweeted: "Still valid: ‘Should the UK authorities breach – or threaten to breach – the Withdrawal Agreement, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill... or in any other way, the European Parliament will, under no circumstances, ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK’."
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis yesterday said the government would unilaterally extend grace periods for trade from Great Britain to the province until October, despite not having an agreement with the EU to do so.
Among them is a plan to postpone the introduction of health paperwork for food heading across the Irish Sea by six months. This grace period, agreed by both sides, is due to expire on April 1st.
Business groups have warned that the new paperwork will overwhelm traders and result in delays to food from Great Britain reaching supermarket shelves in Northern Ireland.
Maros Sefcovic, who co-chairs the UK-EU Joint Committee with Cabinet Office Minister Frost, said the UK's decision to take unilateral action was a "violation" of the Northern Ireland Protocol and a breach of "good faith" clauses in the Brexit agreement.
The European Commission is considering what legal action to take against the government. It could retaliate by imposing tariffs on UK exports and limiting access to its markets for Britain's financial services, The Times reports.
"It seems we are heading for a deterioration in relations over time," the EU source told PoliticsHome.
Sefcovic accused the government of failing to notify the European Commission of its plan.
"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," he said.
However, a Downing Street spokesperson rejected this claim.
“We need to make progress to address the disproportionate impact some of the aspects of the protocol are having on the citizens of Northern Ireland, contrary to their intended purpose,” they said.
“That’s why following official-level notification to the Commission earlier this week, we have set out the temporary technical steps, which largely continue measures already in place, to provide more time for supermarkets and parcel operators to adapt and to implement the new requirements in the protocol".
Simon Hoare, chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, today told PoliticsHome that the government's decision to unilaterally alter the Protocol had done "avoidable" damage to EU trust and characterised the move as having "probably stretched the elastic to snapping point in terms of interpretation [of the Protocol]".
The senior Conservative MP said: “The byproduct of unilateral action, as necessary as it may be, is to enhance the lack of trust and therefore makes future conversations less friendly from the start.
"Every time something like this is done, some sort of unilateral action, we turn the dial backwards which had been moving forwards – and that dial is marked confidence and trust.
“My fear is that for short-term advantage, we are ramping up some long-term issues which can be resolved diplomatically in the usual channels. It’s a huge and avoidable waste of time”.