EU agrees to delay Brexit meat checks in Northern Ireland

The European Commission has granted the UK a three-month extension on the sale of sausages in Northern Ireland in an attempt to defuse a row that has poisoned post-Brexit relations.

In a widely trailed decision, Brussels said fresh sausages and other chilled meats could continue to move between Great Britain and Northern Ireland until 30 September, giving the two sides more time to resolve a fierce dispute over the Northern Ireland protocol, a centrepiece of the Brexit deal.

While the row centres on chilled sausages and minced meat, it has exposed a fundamental clash over the EU’s fears about protecting its single market and the British government’s wish for undiluted sovereignty, against a backdrop of heightened tensions and street violence in Northern Ireland.

Announcing the decision, the European Commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, said: “Our work is about ensuring that the hard-earned gains of the Good Friday/ Belfast agreement –peace and stability in Northern Ireland – are protected, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market. Therefore, we have spared no effort in trying to mitigate some of the challenges that have arisen in the implementation of the protocol.”

To secure his “oven-ready” Brexit deal, Boris Johnson agreed Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union and single market, an outcome his predecessor, Theresa May, said no British prime minister could accept.

The Brexit deal came into force with a six-month delay on the ban on bringing chilled meats into Northern Ireland from Great Britain, to help businesses adjust to the change. The EU does not allow chilled meats into its single market from any non-EU country, a ban the UK government has called “bonkers” when it applies to Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Earlier this month the Brexit minister, Lord Frost, wrote to Brussels requesting a further delay, until 30 September.

This extension may be no more than a truce in the so-called sausage wars. An EU official warned: “We don’t intend to continue with rolling grace periods. So these three months will need to be used wisely.”

The EU continues to press the UK to align its food and plant standards with the bloc, copying the example of Switzerland. A Swiss-style agreement would mean 80% of checks – including those on live animals, fish, meat and dairy products – would disappear, according to the EU. “It could be negotiated very quickly, it can be temporary if the UK’s concern is that it would have an impact on future trade deals,” said the official.

Frost has rejected a Swiss-style agri-food agreement as an “abrogation of sovereignty”. The UK wants both sides to recognise each other’s standards as good enough for checks to be dropped – an approach the EU has long ruled out.

In a related move, the EU has also announced changes to other parts of the protocol, including:

EU officials hope the changes will ease tensions between the UK and Brussels, after a rocky six months since the Brexit trade deal was agreed. The latest announcements follow Monday’s long-awaited decision by Brussels to recognise British data protection standards as adequate, allowing digital information to flow freely across the Channel.

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