The UK has defended its unilateral action over the Northern Ireland protocol, calling the move “temporary and technical steps” which “largely” continue measures already in place.
It comes after the European Union said it will take legal action over Britain’s decision to continue Irish Sea border grace periods until October.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the UK’s move amounted to a violation of its post-Brexit obligations.
The first of the light-touch regulation schemes on goods from the rest of the UK transiting to Northern Ireland had been due to expire at the end of March.
Supermarkets would have had to produce export health certificates for all shipments of animal products since Northern Ireland is part of the EU’s single market.
Cabinet member Lord David Frost said the UK’s intervention should allow time for positive discussions with counterparts in Brussels.
In an effort to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland, the protocol – part of the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement – allows Northern Ireland to remain under some EU rules.
But this means there has to be customs declarations on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, including checks on some products.
Businesses in Northern Ireland have been calling for an extension to the grace periods to avoid having to contend with extra bureaucracy.
Now London has said grace periods such as those for supermarket agri-food movements from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland “will continue” until October.
Lord Frost, who is the Cabinet Office minister responsible for EU-UK relations, spoke to Mr Sefcovic on Wednesday evening amid the tensions.
He said progress was needed to “address the direct and often disproportionate impact that aspects of the protocol are having on the citizens of Northern Ireland, contrary to its intended purpose”, according to a UK government spokesperson.
And the minister explained the new measures 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 underlined they 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”.
Earlier in the day, a European Commission statement said: “Following the UK government’s statement today, vice-president Sefcovic has expressed the EU’s strong concerns over the UK’s unilateral action, as this 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.
“This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law.
“This also constitutes a clear departure from the constructive approach that has prevailed up until now, thereby undermining both the work of the Joint Committee [UK-EU committee tasked with implementing the Brexit deal] and the mutual trust necessary for solution-oriented co-operation.”
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said the UK’s move undermines the UK commitment to the protocol.
He said: “A unilateral announcement is deeply unhelpful to building the relationship of trust and partnership that is central to the implementation of the protocol.”
DUP Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said: “Whilst supermarkets and those bringing in goods via our ports from Great Britain will be relieved to see extensions to the grace periods, we will be continuing to press the government for a permanent solution.
“Grace periods do not provide the long-term certainty that businesses and consumers in Northern Ireland require.
“The protocol has been demonstrated to be unworkable.”
Sinn Fein president Mary-Lou McDonald said: “At last week’s meeting of the Joint Committee, Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic reaffirmed support for the Irish Protocol and the need to work together to deal with issues that have arisen.
“It is incredible that one week later the British government has gone on a solo run and taken unilateral action.
“This was completely unnecessary, totally undermines the work of the Joint Committee and puts it on an immediate collision course with the European Union.”