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 move is designed to provide time to resolve the so-called “sausage war” with Brussels, after talks ran into the sand with little time to spare before the end-of-month deadline.
No response has yet been received from the EU, which insists that the UK must make good on Mr Johnson’s agreement to end movements of chilled meats into the province from the British mainland as part of his Brexit deal.
Sources close to Lord Frost said that he had repeatedly requested the three-month extension in private talks with European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, but has now put it into a formal letter.
Mr Johnson has previously suggested he is willing to order a unilateral extension or even to suspend the Northern Ireland Protocol by invoking Article 16 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, the PM was confronted with a series of EU leaders – including Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Angela Merkel – who told him to implement the arrangements which he agreed in the 2019 protocol as part of his EU withdrawal agreement.
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 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 UK is resisting Brussels 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.