Ireland’s foreign affairs minister has claimed the UK is a negotiating partner the EU “simply can’t trust”, after Boris Johnson’s government announced plans to unilaterally change a part of the Brexit agreement.
Simon Coveney’s remarks follow a legal threat issued by Brussels against the British government, who it accused of being in “violation” of the Northern Ireland Protocol over plans to extend the “grace period” for businesses.
Supermarkets in Northern Ireland have struggled with supply issues since the Brexit deal came into force on 1 January and concerns have been raised the problem will worsen when the light-touch regulation scheme expires at the end of March.
The grace period — a temporary relaxation of checks for supermarkets and suppliers — was put in place to allow firms time to adapt to new trade barriers across the Irish Sea.
But in written statement published on Wednesday, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, said the government would be “taking several operational steps to avoid a disruptive cliff edges” and that the grace period would be extended until October.
Ministers had asked the EU to extend the grace period until 2023, but Brussels had declined to do so thus far.
Echoing comments from Marcos Sefcovic, the vice president of the European Commission, who said he had “strong concerns” over the move, Mr Coveney described the action as “very frustrating” in an interview with RTE Radio 1.
“This is not the first time this has happened, that they are negotiating with a partner that they simply can’t trust,” he said.
“That is why the EU is now looking at legal option and legal actions which effectively means a much more formalised and rigid negotiation process as opposed to a process of partnership where you try to solve problems together, so this is really unwelcome.
“It’s the British government essentially breaking the protocol, breaking their own commitments again, and the EU having to then consider how they respond to that.”
The Irish foreign affairs minister added: “Ironically, some of the things the British government has now unilaterally decided to announce, the Irish government has been advocating for in Brussels and in my view we were making progress on.
“But the way in which the British government has done this, which essentially is to ignore the commitments they have made, the relationships that they have built with the EU side, and instead to make decisions on the basis of politics in Westminster.”
The UK’s move also comes after the hardline Brexiteer, Lord David Frost, was appointed to the cabinet as minister for relations with the EU — taking over responsibilities from Michael Gove as London’s representative on the Joint Committee with Brussels on the implementation of the Brexit agreement.
Mr Coveney added he had a “blunt” conversation with Lord Frost and Mr Lewis on Wednesday after learning of the UK government’s intentions and “strongly advised them not to do it”.
He added: “Before Lord Frost had even spoken with in detail with Marcos Sefcovic in his new role this was announced in a written statements by the British government in Westminster. To say this is disrespectful would be an understatement.”
On Wednesday evening, a UK government spokesperson said: “Lord Frost explained that the measures announced today, following official-level notification to the Commission earlier this week, were temporary technical steps, which largely continued measures already in place, to provide more time for businesses such as supermarkets and parcel operators to adapt to and implement the new requirements in the Protocol.”
“He [Lord Frost] underlined that these were needed for operational reasons and were the minimum necessary steps to allow time for constructive discussions in the Joint Committee to continue without the prospect of disruption to the everyday life of people in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks.”