The Northern Secretary has said the British government is committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol.

But Brandon Lewis said that it must be done in a "pragmatic and proportional way" so that it has a minimal impact on the daily lives of people in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the House of Commons, Mr Lewis said the extension of the "grace periods" to ease imports of certain goods from Britain - announced last week - was a "sensible approach" consisting of temporary measures to avoid a cliff-edge for businesses, while a more permanent solution was negotiated with the European Union.

He said that if the UK government had not taken action last week, there would have been disruption in the supply of vital goods, including food, because of the lead time on orders required by supply chains.

Mr Lewis said that even acting this week would have been too late.

The European Commission is expected to take legal action against the United Kingdom in the coming days over its unilateral move.

The commission is set to issue a letter of formal notice, triggering infringement proceedings against the UK, followed by a second letter to the EU-UK Joint Committee, which will effectively trigger the dispute settlement mechanism within the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Last December, the EU and UK negotiated a series of grace periods that have limited the full impact of the protocol.

Both sides were in negotiations in recent weeks through the Joint Committee, which implements the Withdrawal Agreement, about a possible extension to the grace periods.

However, last week Mr Lewis announced the UK would go ahead itself and extend the grace periods.

In the House of Commons today, Labour Party Northern Ireland spokesperson Louise Haigh wanted to know what the government's objective was.

"Provocation is not a strategy," she said, asking if the intention was to push the protocol "to breaking point" or to secure the kind of practical measures that businesses in Northern Ireland are seeking.

Ms Haigh asked if there had been progress on negotiating an agreement with the EU, that would see mutual recognition of veterinary standards, which she said would go a long way towards easing the bureaucratic load on the import and export of food products.

Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Conservative MP Simon Hoare, urged the government to desist from the narrative of unilateral action, get back around the table with the EU, and make the protocol work for all the people of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis

Mr Lewis defended the protocol, saying it builds on plant and animal health checks between Britain and Ireland that go back to the 19th century.

He said that nobody criticised the Irish Government for its recent easing of requirements on safety and security documentation and said the move by the British government was in the same spirit of pragmatism.

He insisted the UK is a "a very trustworthy partner that does what it says".

Mr Lewis insisted the action taken by London last week in unilaterally extending the grace periods was lawful and temporary, and does not affect the UK's legal obligations under the protocol.

However, when asked specifically what articles of the protocol made the action lawful, Mr Lewis did not cite any particular part, but repeated his statement that the move did not change the UK's legal obligations.

Mr Lewis said the EU's plan to invoke Article 16 of the protocol to control the movement of vaccines out of the bloc had a huge impact on communities in Northern Ireland, especially on the culture and identity of communities.

He added: "To be fair, (European Commission) Vice-President (Maroš) Šefcovic has apologised and said it shouldn't have happened".

He urged Mr Šefcovic to hold more meetings with the business community and civil society groups in Northern Ireland to gain more understanding of the practical problems and possible solutions they may have.


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Yesterday, Mr Šefcovic, outlined to member states the legal options.

It is understood those options could be triggered this week.

There would be a letter of formal notice accusing the UK of being in breach of EU law because it had overridden the protocol.

London would have several weeks to respond and the issue could end up in the European Court of Justice.

A second letter would be addressed to the Joint Committee under Articles 167 and 169 of the Withdrawal Treaty.

Those articles require both sides to consult each other in good faith when implementing the treaty.

By sending the letter, the EU would effectively trigger the treaty's dispute settlement mechanism.

It is understood that Mr Šefcovic told EU ambassadors that disputes with the UK could be the order of the day in the coming months.

However, it is believed that when he held his second phone call with David Frost - his UK opposite number - on Sunday night, it was a more cordial conversation than the one held in the immediate aftermath of last week's announcement.

Reporting Sean Whelan & Tony Connelly