NI minister fails to explain legal grounds for scrapping Brexit customs checks

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis answers questions on the Northern Ireland protocol. Photogr

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis answers questions on the Northern Ireland protocol. Photograph: Parliament TV. - Credit: Archant

The Northern Ireland secretary has failed to explain the legal grounds for scrapping Brexit customs checks in the Irish Sea.

Brandon Lewis was asked to clarify which part of the Northern Ireland Protocol would allow the UK to renege on its committment on customs checks - amid claims it could be breaching international law.

"Is it Article 16, which allows the UK to unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures? And, if not, which other article is he citing?" Labour’s Hilary Benn asked.

Despite insisting the government was acting "lawfully", Lewis could not point to any part of the Protocol that allows it.

Lewis defended the government's move to unilaterally extend the grace period on Brexit regulations, saying Northern Ireland faced "empty shelves, potentially, in just a couple of weeks' time". 

He also lashed out at Labour for “defending the EU rather than defending the actions of the UK government, which is standing up for the people of Northern Ireland". 

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Lewis stressed the government was keen to get back to the negotiating table.

But the minister's words may have fallen on deaf ears after the EU hinted it would press ahead with legal action against the UK government.

Lewis' failure to state the legal basis for unilaterally delaying the checks is likely to be seized upon by Brussels as it prepares its legal action.

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That is likely to include a formal “infringement proceeding” that could end up at the European Court of justice, as well as triggering the dispute mechanism in the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

EU27 ambassadors are said to be in full agreement that the EU “had to act firmly” and action could begin as early this week.

Lewis blamed Brussels for inflaming “issues and tensions” by briefly threatening to invoke Article 16 itself, in the row over vaccine exports.

"The measures I announced last Wednesday are lawful and consistent with the progressive and good faith implementation of the Protocol," he said.

And he added: "They do not change our legal obligations as set out in the Protocol under any of its articles.

"These measures are of a kind well precedented in the context of trade practice internationally and are consistent with our intention to discharge our obligations under the Protocol in good faith."

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