The UK has urged the EU to ditch a technical and legalistic approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol as it requested further time to resolve problems linked to its operation.
In a letter to European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove said there was a need to find “political solutions” to the disruption and red tape associated with the Brexit mechanism.
He warned that if solutions were not found, the Government would consider using “all instruments at its disposal” – comments that raise the prospect of a unilateral move to suspend aspects of the protocol.
Mr Gove has written to Mr Sefcovic asking for an extension of a series of grace periods that are currently in operation that limit the level of bureaucracy associated with the protocol.
The Government wants to extend these grace periods, some of which are due to expire at the end of March, to January 2023 in order to provide space to find permanent solutions.
That would see the protocol operating on a limited basis past the next scheduled Stormont Assembly election in May 2022.
The Government has raised concern that the outworking of regulatory and customs processes on GB-to-NI trade is undermining east-west relations that are a key dimension of Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement.
“In all cases, what is now required is political, not technical, solutions,” said Mr Gove.
In the letter, he again raised concern at the EU’s botched bid to suspend aspects of the protocol on Friday night as part of its wider efforts to impose export controls on Covid vaccines leaving the bloc.
“A primarily technical approach led to what I know you agree was a grave error on 29 January,” he wrote to Mr Sefcovic.
“Northern Ireland would not be where it is today if the negotiations leading to the 1998 Agreement had been done on a technical and legalistic basis. What is required now is an urgent reset to put the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement, the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the island of Ireland, first.”
Mr Gove said there was a need to “rebuild trust and confidence in Northern Ireland in a calm but effective manner”.
“The need to restore confidence and protect the Belfast ‘Good Friday’ Agreement is urgent,” he said.
A range of grace periods came into effect when the protocol became operational on December 31.
Supermarkets and other food retailers were given three months to adjust to the new regulatory checks on animal-based food products.
From April 1, they will need to produce export health certificates for every animal-based food product they ship to Northern Ireland.
For the first three months, only one all-encompassing certificate is required per consignment of goods.
Some products are to be prohibited from entering Northern Ireland at all under single market rules.
Sausages and other chilled meats, which are on that banned list, were granted a specific six-month grace period to enable their import from GB to continue until June, using temporary certificates.
There is also a three-month grace period that means the majority of parcels sent to Northern Ireland from GB do not need customs declarations.
Again, that is due to change in April.
In regard to the movement of medicines from GB to NI, there is a 12-month grace period in place, with new regulatory processes due in 2022.
The protocol will also put restrictions on the movement of pets between GB and NI, including the need for rabies vaccines.
Those restrictions will come into place in the summer.
Mr Gove told Mr Sefcovic that the EU should give Ireland the authority to strike a bilateral agreement with the UK on the movement of pets between the islands.
The Cabinet Office Minister also pledged to set out long-term solutions to an issue that had seen Northern Ireland steel importers facing the prospect of heavy tariffs as a consequence of the protocol.