Boris Johnson has plunged deeper into a bitter row with the EU by announcing fresh measures in Northern Ireland, as the bloc on Thursday threatened to hit Britain with trade tariffs if it failed to back down.
Just hours after the UK moved to unilaterally extend grace periods for Northern Irish supermarkets by six months, the Government announced it would now seek to ease trade barriers on parcels.
Lord David Frost, the minister in charge of EU relations, has issued an indefinite relaxation of customs requirements on parcels being sent from British businesses to consumers in the province.
The move will prevent companies such as John Lewis and Amazon being hit by added red tape when delivering to Northern Ireland, with a six-month extension for business-to-business parcels also implemented until October.
It came as Brussels reacted with fury to the UK’s decision on Wednesday to exempt supermarkets from additional customs checks until October, with the bloc signalling it will seek to suspend parts of the Brexit trade deal in retaliation.
On Thursday, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said the EU would have no option but to resort to legal action because it was negotiating with a “frustrating” partner “it simply couldn’t trust”.
Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner in charge of overseeing the Brexit trade deal, said the EU was already preparing legal action in the European Court of Justice.
Despite the threat, requirements around the import of vegetables, plants and agricultural machinery which contain traces of British soil will also be eased unilaterally by the UK, following claims that imports are being blocked at ports due to an overzealous application of the rules.
While the EU claims the move is a breach of the protocol, which is overseen by a joint UK-EU joint committee, senior Government sources have rejected this claim and argue they are acting to protect Northern Irish businesses and consumers from avoidable trade disruption.
Writing for The Telegraph, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, insisted the measures were “lawful and consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the Protocol”.
He also hit back at the EU’s claims, pointing to the “serious, ongoing consequences” of its aborted attempt in January to erect a hard vaccines border on the island of Ireland.
“In my discussions with Northern Ireland businesses and civic society, it was increasingly clear that decisions needed to be taken now to avoid significant immediate-term disruption to everyday life in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Johnson also insisted the UK was merely taking “temporary and technical measures to ensure that there are no barriers in the Irish Sea, to make sure things flow freely,” and would continue to work with the EU to find solutions.
However, Brussels is now mulling bringing lawsuits against the UK in the European Court of Justice, which retains jurisdiction over the Protocol, as well triggering enforcement measures in the Brexit deal.
The European Commission is considering triggering enforcement measures in the Withdrawal Agreement and the UK-EU trade deal.
If Britain ignores the ruling of an arbitration panel, Brussels could suspend parts of the newly minted trade agreement, leaving British exports to the EU potentially facing tariffs.
Such retaliation must be proportionate to the offence, which in the case of supermarket supplies to Northern Ireland, is likely to be limited.
Mairead McGuinness, the EU financial services commissioner, suggested the development could derail talks on regulatory “equivalence” to allow increased access of UK financial service firms to European markets.
Separately, the European Parliament has postponed setting a date for ratifying the trade deal, which must be done in order for it to come into full effect.