The European Union has formally launched legal action against the UK for unilaterally extending the post-Brexit grace periods to trade in Northern Ireland.

As tensions escalate, the European Commission today prepared to make the move over the Government’s alleged breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

EU vice president Maros Sefcovic accused the UK of violating international law and undermining trust by unilaterally extending the grace periods on Northern Ireland.

In a statement, he said: “The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market.

“The EU and the UK agreed the Protocol together. We are also bound to implement it together.

“Unilateral decisions and international law violations by the UK defeat its very purpose and undermine trust between us. The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives."

He added: “That is why we are launching legal action today.

"I do hope that through the collaborative, pragmatic and constructive spirit that has prevailed in our work so far on implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, we can solve these issues in the Joint Committee without recourse to further legal means.”

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The grace periods cover areas such as supermarket supplies and parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland from Great Britain and mean checks are not yet fully applied.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the extensions are “very sensible”, with the Government denying there has been a breach of the protocol.

Narrow Water Point and Warrenpoint Port (Liam McBurney/PA)Narrow Water Point and Warrenpoint Port

What is the Northern Ireland Protocol?

The Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement was designed by the UK and EU to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland when the post-Brexit transition period ended on December 31.

Northern Ireland remained part of the EU’s single market for goods, meaning products arriving from Great Britain face EU import regulations.

The first of the grace periods had been due to expire at the end of this month but the UK has pledged to extend them until October in a move widely welcomed by businesses in Belfast.