Boris Johnson’s Brexit minister David Frost has formally requested a three-month extension to the “grace period” before a ban on chilled meat exports to Northern Ireland, from 30 June to 30 September.
The request, in a letter to European Commission vice-president Maros Sevcovic, is designed to provide time to resolve the so-called “sausage war” with Brussels, after talks ran into the sand with the end-of-month deadline approaching.
Brussels said in response that it would “assess” the proposal and that Mr Sefcovic was ready to meet Lord Frost “as soon as possible” to discuss it.
But in a statement, the commission said that the UK must “fully implement” the Northern Ireland protocol agreed by Mr Johnson in 2019, which includes measures to protect the EU single market including an end to movements of chilled meats from the British mainland.
“There is no alternative to the protocol,” said the commission.
“When looking for solutions, providing stability and predictability for the people of Northern Ireland will be of paramount importance.”
The sausage ban was required by Brussels in order to avoid Northern Ireland becoming a backdoor to the single market for food products which do not meet European standards. A six-month grace period was permitted in the agreement in order to give retailers time to adapt.
Mr Johnson’s decision to tear up Theresa May’s “backstop” and instead draw a customs border down the Irish Sea has effectively left Northern Ireland within the single market area, forcing complicated checks on goods arriving from the rest of the UK.
The prime minister has previously suggested he is willing to order a unilateral extension to the grace period, or even to suspend the protocol, in order to prevent a situation where consumers in Northern Ireland are unable to buy chilled meat products from elsewhere in the UK.
At last weekend’s G7 summit in Cornwall, Mr Johnson was confronted by a series of EU leaders – including commission president Ursula von der Leyen, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel – telling him to implement the arrangements which he signed up to.
London argues that the EU is taking an unnecessarily “purist” approach to implementing the agreement, but acknowledges that there has been no breach by Brussels.
The UK is resisting EU proposals to resolve the situation by aligning with European standards on animal welfare and hygiene, which it fears could stand in the way of future trade deals with countries like the US.
But Brussels has rejected Lord Frost’s call for it to simply accept that standards in the UK are broadly equivalent and that British sausages do not pose any safety risk.