March 5, 2021, 3:02 p.m. EST

Britain and the EU plunged into new crisis over food imports to Northern Ireland

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By Pierre Briançon

The European Union said on Wednesday that it would take legal action against the unilateral decision of the U.K. government to extend a grace period for checks on food imports from Britain into Northern Ireland, reviving the tensions that nearly sank talks on a post-Brexit trade agreement last year.

  • The grace period before health certificates became mandatory on agrifood imports from Britain to Northern Ireland was due to end in April, but London now says that the new regime won’t come into force before Oct .1.

  • European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič said in a statement that the U.K.’s decision was a “ violation of the relevant substantive provisions ” of the Protocol on Ireland signed by both parties last year.

  • Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney deemed the U.K. move “deeply unhelpful to building a relation of trust and partnership” with the EU.

  • London’s decision came as some lawmakers from the ruling Conservative Party as well as unionist parties in Northern Ireland are pushing for the U.K. to pull out from the agreement signed last December.

  • Northern Ireland loyalist paramilitary organizations wrote to U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson this week to tell him they were pulling their support for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, according to the Belfast Telegraph.

  • Johnson insisted on Thursday that “with a bit of good will and common sense” the problem around Brexit and Northern Ireland would prove “eminently solvable.”

From the archives (September 2020): Biden to Brexit Britain: No trade deal with U.S. if you mess with Ireland

The outlook:  Johnson reluctantly accepted last year that Northern Ireland remain in the EU single market, to preserve the Good Friday peace agreement. And then-candidate Joe Biden made it clear during the presidential campaign that there would be no U.S.-U.K. trade deal if the 23-year old peace deal was compromised.

The handling last month by the European Commission of its own self-created fiasco, when it briefly threatened to prevent the circulation of COVID-19 vaccines between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, fueled the anger of the deal’s opponents.

But EU officials are increasingly worrying that to placate the protocol refuseniks, Johnson will choose to periodically create systematic crises with the EU to keep them onboard.

Opinion:  Here’s what Joe Biden’s win means for Brexit and the U.K.’s ‘special relationship’

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