EU backs down over legal action ahead of Lord Frost’s crunch Brussels trip tomorrow

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The decision came ahead of a crunch showdown between Brexit minister Lord Frost and EU counterpart Maros Sefcovic in the Belgian capital tomorrow. They are due to meet to discuss the ongoing tensions in the region following weeks of violent scenes in Loyalist areas. The European Commission triggered legal action last month after accusing No10 of breaching international law by temporarily suspending EU-ordered checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

But eurocrats have agreed to give British officials longer to respond to the allegations in the hope a compromise can be found.

A UK Government spokesman said: “In line with precedent that typically allows two months to respond to proceedings of this kind, we have agreed with the EU that we will respond to the Letter of Formal Notice by mid-May.

“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

Whitehall insiders said the letter was sent earlier this month requesting more time to complete the formalities.

It is hoped the move will give Lord Frost and Mr Sefcovic more room to broker a political agreement.

The Government wants to limit customs controls between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

Some in London are concerned that the measures, that are part of the Brexit divorce deal’s protocol to avoid a hard border, have raised tensions in Northern Ireland.

To keep the Irish border open, the region effectively remains part of the EU’s single market and checks are now made on some products arriving from the rest of the UK.

Both sides previously agreed to a three-month grace period from new controls to give time to adjust.

Downing Street is unilaterally extending the exemptions from the end of the month until October 1.

In his letter to his Brussels counterpart, Lord Frost stressed that the extensions were in line with Britain’s willingness to implement the protocol.

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Boris Johnson’s top Brexit adviser warned that delaying the introduction of checks was vital for maintaining supermarket supplies in Northern Ireland.

Sources told Irish broadcaster RTE that the approach was “courteous” and “respectful”.

Both sides have been keen to play down recent spats over the Northern Ireland border because of violent disruptions in the region.

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While there are still “significant differences” to overcome in the talks tomorrow, Whitehall officials are cautiously optimistic a compromise can be found.

A Government spokesman earlier this week said: “Both the UK and EU are engaging with business, civil society and other stakeholders in Northern Ireland, to understand the issues they are facing.

“The UK remains committed to working through the outstanding issues in order to restore confidence on the ground in Northern Ireland, reflect the needs of communities and respect all dimensions of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”

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