EU launches legal action against the UK over Northern Ireland protocol

Brussels has launched legal action against the UK over the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, as relations between the two sides deteriorate over Boris Johnson’s plans to rip up the key provision of his 2020 Brexit deal with the EU.

The European Commission on Wednesday announced it will resume a previously paused legal action against the UK for failing to implement full border checks in Northern Ireland. These were set up by the protocol, the part of the Brexit deal that covers trading arrangements in the region, which is intended to prevent a hard border in the island of Ireland.

Brussels is also beginning two additional infringement actions over data sharing and health and safety checks.

The moves were unveiled by European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič following legislation published by London this week that would in effect rip up much of the protocol by eliminating some border checks, sidelining the European Court of Justice and giving British ministers powers to override the agreement. The infringement proceedings could ultimately lead to fines against the UK.

“There is no legal, nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement,” Šefčovič said. “Let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal. The UK bill is extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between EU and UK. It has created deep uncertainty.” 

He said the commission had been holding back from launching legal action for the past year “because we were seeking constructive solutions.”

Šefčovič said he had been laying out possible avenues to use measures already included in the protocol to smooth trade frictions, in the hope of a negotiated settlement of the EU’s differences with the UK over the protocol. “Despite today’s action, our door remains open to dialogue,” he said, as long as there were safeguards included in protecting the EU single market.

The new UK legislation still faces stiff obstacles in parliament, particularly in the House of Lords. Johnson defied a chorus of criticism in moving ahead with the bill, insisting there was “no other way” of protecting the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The region’s biggest unionist party said it will not return to Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive unless the protocol is rewritten to eliminate the de facto border in the Irish Sea.

However, the British government’s plans have angered many in Brussels, Dublin and beyond. Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said Johnson’s unilateral approach marked a “new low” and amounted to a breach of international law, while a majority of elected members of Northern Ireland’s assembly also attacked the move.

“Do I see anything positive in the UK bill? No, neither on message, nor on substance,” said an EU official on Wednesday.

An EU infringement procedure can last several months before a case is referred to the EU top court, which can impose fines on the UK. But the EU also has other means of pressure, such as increased checks by national customs authorities on goods coming from Britain into countries such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

If Johnson manages to get the legislation enacted into law, it could pave the way to the EU imposing tariffs to British goods, or ultimately even ending parts of its post-Brexit trade deal.

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