The British government has been accused of “foot dragging and vague promises” amid calls for urgent action on preparations on Brexit, including new customs posts to carry out checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea.
The London government must “immediately” start construction in order to be ready for 1 January, the European Commission has said, when the Brexit transition period is due to end and new controls begin.
Under the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Boris Johnson and legally binding, the north of Ireland will remain in the EU Customs area, but controls are to be managed and duties collected by the British authorities.
So far there has been no indication of any new customs infrastructure, and a blanket refusal to permit a related office for EU officials in Belfast.
A communique to EU member states from the Commission says implementation of the agreement as a whole “must be well under way by 1 July 2020”, but says construction of border posts at British ports on the Irish Sea is among measures which “have to be taken even earlier” to ensure they are delivered on time.
The briefing note says that London must get on with implementing the introduction of customs procedures and formalities in the Six Counties as well as the introduction of agriculture and health safety checks between the North and Britain.
The EU Commission is also warning that Britain has just 30 days to start a major upgrade of its computer systems that will be needed to process new checks.
A fresh showdown is mounting as the British prime minister is refusing to extend the Brexit transition period, which would allow more time to implement the withdrawal agreement before Britain crashes out. Under the treaty, a decision to extend would have to be made by next month at the latest, but the return of Tory brinkmanship is again set to create a national and international crisis.
“The economic, catastrophic consequences for our economy from Covid-19, compounded by a Brexit we didn’t ask for, leaves us in such a precarious situation,” said Sinn Féin’s leader in the North, Michelle O’Neill. “We cannot cope with all these shocks. Shock after shock is not going to be good for our economy.”
The Tories have also raised the concern that they may again try to argue for a unionist veto over the implementation of the protocol as a peace process issue.
Asked about the EU note, a Number 10 spokesperson said it “appears to miss out the fundamental objective of the Northern Ireland protocol. There is no mention of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement or the peace process anywhere in this seven-page document.”
Sinn Féin’s Brexit spokesperson MP Chris Hazzard warned that time is running out. He noted that the EU said it would “take stock” by June on what real progress the British government has made.
“It is time for foot dragging and vague promises to end, and for commitments to be honoured,” he said.
He also called for the Brexit deadline should be extended. “Since the beginning of the Brexit process the British government have attempted to delay, frustrate and renege on all commitments it has entered into.
“Given the unprecedented COVID-19 public health crisis we are facing, the ongoing Brexit negotiations have been stalled, or when they have been held, little progress has been made.
“The Brexit deadline is fast approaching which could see us being dragged out of the EU against our will and without any of the protections that have been agreed to date.
“Such a scenario would be devastating to our economy, particularly coming on the back of the economic damages caused by this pandemic.
“The Brexit deadline should now be extended given the extraordinary circumstances we find ourselves in. The majority in the north do not want Brexit. It should now be delayed or stopped on the interests of our economy.”