Brexit Brief Newsletter
8 March 2021
Welcome to the 8 March 2021 newsletter
The UK Government announced on Wednesday it is unilaterally extending grace periods for supermarket supplies and parcels. The EU is preparing to take legal action over the matter. NI Agriculture Minister Lyons took questions in the NI Assembly on his announcement that he had told staff to stop work on permanent Border Control Posts; on Thursday officials gave evidence to the Committee on the same topic. MPs have heard from the UK Government that it will work with devolved administrations to “determine an appropriate role for them” in the governance structures of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
UK Government unilaterally extends grace periods
On Wednesday 3 March, the UK Government made a statement announcing that it is “taking several temporary operational steps to avoid disruptive cliff edges”. The statement outlines the UK Government’s move to unilaterally extend the grace period for supermarkets and their suppliers until 1 October. Following this, “certification requirements will then be introduced in phases alongside the roll out of the Digital Assistance Scheme.”
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis in the House of Commons on Wednesday signalled the UK Government’s action: “we are taking forward a series of further temporary operational steps.” | Source UK Parliament
The move was welcomed by business: Director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, Aodhán Connolly said, “The retail industry welcomes the extension of the grace periods in both time and scope, even if it is unilaterally…We now have short-term stability, one of our four key asks. But there is still much to be delivered.” Manufacturing NI tweeted that, “The JC [EU-UK Joint Committee] meeting last week was the chance to do some good, provide the stability but that opportunity was spurned.”
European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič expressed “strong concerns” about the UK’s unilateral action, which “amounts to a violation of the relevant substantive provisions of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement”. According to the Commission, “this is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law.” On Thursday Šefčovič said that the EU is preparing to take legal action against the UK. The European Parliament postponed the decision to set the date for its vote on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement. The TCA must be ratified before the end of April.
Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on International Trade (INTA) on the implications of the UK's move | Source: Twitter
Lord Frost, who took up his new role overseeing the UK’s relationship with the EU last Monday, had a phone call with Šefčovič on Wednesday evening. According to a UK Government statement, Frost explained that the measures are “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”. Frost argues that these are “the minimum necessary steps to allow time for constructive discussion in the Joint Committee to continue without the prospect of disruption to the everyday life of people in Northern Ireland”.
Lord Frost (right) meeting with Michael Barnier in July 2020 during the negotiations of the EU-UK Trade Agreement | Source: Andrew Parsons / No 10 Downing Street
However, Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the UK government is in breach of the Protocol with its action, and "if the UK cannot simply be trusted because they take unilateral action in an unexpected way without negotiation, well then the British government leaves the EU with no option and that is not where we want to be," he said.
Parcels and plants
The UK Government has also temporarily removed a ban on importing plants which have soil attached from GB to NI, and has unilaterally extended the grace periods for customs declarations on parcels moving GB-NI. Plants moved with soil attached, or grown in soil, must be from an authorised business which meets GB plant passporting rules. A UK Government spokesperson said, “these temporary, practical arrangements recognise the need to ensure biosecurity on the island of Ireland is not compromised whilst addressing barriers which stop goods moving into Northern Ireland.”
DAERA Minister and officials questioned on the Protocol’s implementation
On Monday and Tuesday Minister for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, Gordon Lyons, was questioned about his decision to ask his staff to halt work on permanent Border Control Posts (BCPs) at ports. He outlined his arguments for doing so, citing a “lack of clarity on a range of legal issues that need to be resolved in respect of the implementation of the protocol and, indeed, the functioning of the internal UK single market”, ongoing discussions at the Joint Committee, uncertainty around grace periods, and the lack of a solution for retail consignments.
Minister Lyons speaking in the Northern Ireland Assembly on Monday | Source: NI Assembly
On Thursday the Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs was updated by senior officials on the Department’s Brexit work, including construction work and staffing at BCPs. Permanent Secretary Denis McMahon emphasised that the Department’s position is that they “must always work within the law”: they are seeking legal advice on the Minister’s request. Minister Lyons plans to bring a paper on the matter to the Executive, which would be informed by the legal advice. McMahon couldn’t expand further on the legal advice, given its ongoing consideration.
Officials told the Committee that checks continue at ports: over 13,000 documentary checks have been carried out since the start of the year. The officials’ best estimate is that permanent facilities would not be ready before the end of March 2022. Contractual obligations were also discussed in light of the Minister’s decision.
MLAs heard that the volume of work required to implement the Protocol has been “stretching us [DAERA staff] to the limit” and will only get worse at the end of the grace period. Chief Vet Robert Huey said that NI could soon (at the end of the grace periods) have to carry out the same number of agri-food checks (CHED Ps) as the entire EU currently conducts on imports from third countries. A Digital Assistance Scheme to automate some processes is being developed, and is entering the design phase.
For DAERA, the priority is to “comply with law and keep trade flowing”, however they are using a “finite resource” to deal with these imperatives – recruitment of vets and staff is ongoing. Huey said the Minister’s instruction has “had an effect on morale because people were hoping that the cavalry were coming over the hill and they're concerned that if this halt continues for any length of time that it will cause significant difficulties for filling posts”: he said they need clarity. Resource costs are being covered by the Treasury.
It was noted that colleagues in Dublin said it took a full three years to prepare for increased checks. It is a “small miracle” that things are up and running. MLAs also heard that there was “no meaningful consultation” with DAERA officials ahead of the UK Government’s announcement on Wednesday to unilaterally extend the grace period.
Justice and policing post-Brexit
In the plenary on Monday, Justice Minister Naomi Long was questioned about cross-border cooperation on crime post-Brexit. Long noted that the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement “replicates most of the key EU justice measures that the UK had access to as an EU member state” but one key area excluded is access to the Schengen Information System (SIS II). She noted that there would be implications for live sharing of data and information between police services if there is no data adequacy agreement. She said she would look to the UK to agree bilateral arrangements with Ireland “once the new arrangements have bedded in and a proper gap analysis has taken place.”
Justice Minister Naomi Long answered questioned on cross-border cooperation post-Brexit | Source: NI Assembly
Robin Walker MP, Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office was at the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on Wednesday to update MPs on cross-border cooperation on policing, security and criminal justice after Brexit. He said the new arrangements were so far working well and there had been no impact to date on bilateral law enforcement. On data adequacy, he said the UK is committed to maintaining high standards, and is ready to engage with the EU – he says the UK would need ongoing work to demonstrate its standards but sees no reason why the UK wouldn’t be found to have adequate standards. On 19 February, the European Commission published draft decisions on UK data adequacy.
Walker said that now the TCA has been secured, the UK will pursue and review its bilateral relationship with the Irish Government. He said that there is a good level of exchange, noting recent foreign policy discussions with Minister Simon Coveney. On representation for devolved governments in TCA governance structures, Walker said they would work “to determine an appropriate role for them” but that the decisions have not been taken yet.
UK Community Renewal Fund 2021-22
The UK Community Renewal Fund will provide £220 million additional funding ahead of the introduction of the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (SPF). The SPF replaces EU structural funding now that the UK has left the EU. The Community Renewal Fund intends to help people most in need across the UK. The UK Government says it will “work directly with local partners and communities across England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, who are best placed to understand the needs of their local areas and more closely aligned to the local economic geographies to deliver quickly on the ground.”
The Government says it is taking a different approach in delivering the fund to Northern Ireland “which takes account of the different local government landscape in NI compared to Great Britain.” There will be a pre-determined national allocation of £11 million for NI, and the UK Government will run a national competition against the fixed national allocation.
Bids for the fund should be submitted by applicants to the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government by noon on Friday 18 June 2021 by emailing UKCommunityRenewalFund@communities.gov.uk.
3 March 2021
- UK government publishes the UK Community Renewal Fund prospectus.
- The list of priority places and lead authorities in Great Britain is published within the prospectus.
- UK government launches a project competition in Northern Ireland.
18 June 2021
- Lead Authorities in Great Britain submit shortlists of projects to UK government for assessment.
- Applicants in Northern Ireland submit their bids to UK government for appraisal and assessment.
- From 18 June and throughout July, UK government assesses bids.
Late July 2021 onwards
- UK government announces successful projects for the UK Community Renewal Fund.
Timeline for the UK Community Renewal Fund | Source: UK Government
Investment in Northern Ireland
The Committee for the Economy heard from Invest NI and InterTradeIreland. Invest NI is responsible for promoting business growth and inward investment into NI, while InterTradeIreland is the cross-border trade and business development body. Invest NI CEO Kevin Holland told the Committee that 2021 will be a “defining year in Northern Ireland’s future”, given how global supply chains are changing. He said that there has been a spotlight on Northern Ireland and that the organisation has been “very proactive” in its communications to business groups and media. Northern Ireland is attractive, Holland said, there is a “long list of reasons why businesses should come here” and while they do talk about dual market access, there are other core reasons.
- The UK thinks the governance bodies of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement should not formally begin work under the provisional application period (which lasts until 30 April) unless required. Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Gove stated this position in his letter to Maroš Šefčovič, where he agreed to extend the provisional application period as requested by the EU.
- The UK Procedure Committee held a session on the procedure of the House of Commons and the territorial constitution. Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University appeared before the Committee, alongside academics from the University of Edinburgh and Cardiff University. On the legislative consent process, Hayward pointed out there has been some issues with the process recently: “first is the possibility that Northern Ireland Ministers might not comply with the Standing Orders” or that the Minister does not bring a memo explaining why they are not laying a request for consent. Hayward says, “The consequence of that is that the UK Parliament has then passed the Bill without the Northern Ireland Assembly being efficiently informed about that Bill impinging on devolved powers, let alone giving its consent.”
- According to the Northern Ireland Office there have been over 81,000 applications to the EU Settlement Scheme across Northern Ireland. The scheme allows EU citizens who are already living in Northern Ireland to continue doing so after 30 June 2021.
- The UK Government has published a report by the Trade and Agriculture Commission with recommendations for future trade policy. The report states, “We need to signal that we are not going to remain constrained by our former membership of the EU, and that we are genuinely open to new, liberalised trading relationships.” The Commission makes 22 recommendations for UK trade policy. Ulster Farmers’ Union President Victor Chestnutt was a part of the Commission. He said, “we are particularly encouraged that the clear position from the Commission was to safeguard important standards.”
This Week at the Assembly
- Monday 8 March, 2pm - Plenary - Question Time: The Executive Office
- Tuesday 9 March, 2pm - Plenary - Question Time: Economy
- Wednesday 10 March, 9.35 am - Committee for Economy - Briefing from NI Tourism Alliance (NITA) - Covid-19 response & EU Exit and NI Protocol; EU Exit legislation
- Wednesday 10 March, 2.05 pm - Committee for Finance - Public Procurement - Common Framework: Oral Briefing from Social Enterprise NI
- Wednesday 10 March, 2 pm - Committee for The Executive Office - UK Exit from EU - Seanad Select Committee on the Withdrawal of the UK from the EU
- Thursday 11 March, 9.30 am - Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - Minister Lyons - Oral Evidence on DAERA Priorities for 2021/22; Withdrawal of DAERA and Local Authority Staff from Ports - Oral evidence from TUS; EU Transition Update - Written Briefing from DAERA
Catch up with the Committees
- Tuesday 2 March, 2 pm - Plenary - Question Time: Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs
- Wednesday 3 March, 10.05 am - Committee for Economy - Invest NI & InterTradeIreland Briefing on EU Exit & NI Protocol; EU Exit Regulation
- Wednesday 3 March, 3:15 pm - Committee for Finance - Public Procurement Common Framework: RaISe Oral Briefing; Construction Employers’ Federation oral briefing
- Thursday 4 March, 12.30 pm - Committee for Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs - Update on construction and staffing at BCP/POE - Oral Evidence from DAERA; Legislation relating to EU Exit
- Thursday 4 March, 2 pm - Committee for Justice - Legislation relating to EU Exit