EU Launches Legal Action Against The UK Over "Violation" Of Northern Ireland Protocol
The European Union has formally taken legal action against the government over its plan to change the post-Brexit protocol for Northern Ireland without an agreement with Brussels.
The European Commission on Monday sent the government a letter of formal notice that it was initiating an infringement process against the UK. It also sent a political letter to David Frost, the UK's chief negotiator, urging him and the government to withdraw their controversial plan.
It is the second time that the EU has taken legal action against the UK government over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Protocol was agreed by the two sides in last year's Brexit talks in order to avoid a contentious hard border on the island of Ireland. Northern Ireland continues to follow the EU's single market and customs rules despite no longer being in the bloc, while the rest of the UK does not.
In October the EU launched an infringement procedure against the the UK after the government announced that it intended to change elements of the Protocol, which by its own admission would have broken international law.
This time the row is over the government's decision to unilaterally extend grace periods for businesses trading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland without first securing the EU's agreement to do so.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the "temporary and technical" measures were necessary for preventing further disruption to Northern Ireland's supply chains as the province adjusts its new trading arrangements with the rest of the UK.The new red tape for trade has led to shortages of certain items in Northern Irish supermarkets and prompted some businesses in Great Britain to pause their shipments across the Irish Sea.
Lewis last week admitted there were significant new barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland after claiming on 1 January that there was "no border in the Irish Sea".
The government has moved to extend grace periods eliminating health paperwork for food goods and customs checks on parcels heading from Great Britain to Northern Ireland until October.
The European Commission's Maros Sefcovic, who chairs the EU-UK Joint Committee with Frost, this afternoon 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. The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives.
"That is why we are launching legal action today".
The legal action could result in the UK appearing before the European Court of Justice.
However, Sefcovic stressed that he hoped the two sides would be able to reach a political solution in Joint Committee talks over the Northern Ireland Protocol in the coming weeks.
"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," he said.
A spokesperson said the government would response to the EU's legal action "in due course".
“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are temporary, operational steps intended to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland and protect the everyday lives of the people living there," they said.
"They are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
"Low key operational measures like these are well precedented and common in the early days of major international treaties.
"In some areas, the EU also seems to need time to implement the detail of our agreements.
"This is a normal process when implementing new treaties and not something that should warrant legal action".