Brussels launches legal action against UK over Northern Ireland
Brussels has accused Britain of violating international law as it launched legal action over Boris Johnson’s decision to unilaterally extend post-Brexit grace periods in Northern Ireland. The European Commission set a deadline of the end of the month to “rectify” the alleged breaches of the Northern Ireland Protocol, warning it would pursue a case in the EU’s top court and trigger dispute resolution mechanisms in the Brexit treaties. It comes after Lord Frost, the minister in charge of EU relations, moved earlier this month to delay the implementation of a full range of checks on supermarket goods and parcels crossing the Irish Sea. The UK argues its actions are temporary, lawful steps necessary to prevent further disruption to traders operating in Northern Ireland, and that ministers had already asked Brussels to agree to a series of extensions while permanent solutions to the problems are found. Boris Johnson said the protocol – which was established to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland – was also there to “guarantee” the continued flow of trade between the province and the rest of the UK. “That’s all we’re trying to sort out with some temporary and technical measures which we think are very sensible,” he added. However, the EU claims that the decision to act outside of the joint decision-making process is in breach of the UK’s obligations, and comes after a similar threat was made by the UK during the trade deal negotiations last year. It has sent a letter triggering the first step in infringement proceedings against the UK, which could see it issued with large fines in the European Court of Justice. A second “political letter” has been sent to Lord Frost, warning the EU would trigger dispute processes that could ultimately allow it to suspend parts of the free trade agreement. Maros Sefcovic, the EU commissioner in charge of the Brexit agreement, said: “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.” Micheal Martin, the Irish Taoiseach, said the UK’s unilateral action had done “nothing but corrode trust” and was exacerbating “uncertainty and instability” in the province. Pushing back, a Government spokesman said “low key” measures were “well precedented and common” in the early stages of international treaties, pointing out that there were areas where the EU also needed more time to live up to its obligations. “This is a normal process when implementing new treaties and not something that should warrant legal action,” they added. “All sides need to keep in mind the fact that the Protocol depends on cross-community consent and confidence if it is to work and deliver our common objective of protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its dimensions.” Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s First Minister, said the action showed the EU’s failure to comprehend the “damage the protocol is causing”, adding: “Rather than showing concern for stability in Northern Ireland or respect for the principle of consent, Brussels is foolishly and selfishly focused on protecting its own bloc.” An EU official denied that insisting on the implementation of the protocol was putting the Good Friday Agreement at risk by infuriating loyalists. While the proceedings play out, the UK is confident of finding political solutions with Brussels to the issues plaguing traders and consumers in Northern Ireland. Sources also pointed out that the EU currently has hundreds of infringement proceedings active against the UK and member states. The EU had a total of 800 infringements pending against member states in 2019. There are on average 29 infringements a year per member state, with all 27 currently facing some form of infraction, according to figures provided by UK sources. Brussels twice launched infringement proceedings against the UK before the end of the Brexit transition period. Neither of them came before judges in Luxembourg. However, EU officials say many of the problems with the Protocol could be avoided if the UK would simply align itself with Brussels’ regulations for food safety, animal and plant health rules, which would remove the need for checks.