April 23, 2021

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Brussels launches legal action against UK over Brexit breach

4 min read
European Commission says UK is set to break international law with unilateral bid to ease Northern Ireland checks.

The European Commission today launched twin-track legal action against the British government over its decision to unilaterally delay the introduction of post-Brexit checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The EU executive body said in a statement that it had sent two letters to the U.K. government, which contain threats of two different paths for legal proceedings against London should the British government not be willing to settle the dispute via negotiations in the coming weeks.

The U.K. said the waivers remained “lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

As a first measure, the Commission sent a letter of formal notice — the first step of a so-called infringement procedure — “for breaching the substantive provisions of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland” in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement “as well as the good faith obligation” under that deal.

The triggering of the infringement procedure means London has one month to reply to the EU and explain or remedy its actions. If the Commission is not satisfied with the response, it can formally request the U.K. government change course. Should that still not yield the desired result, Brussels can refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU. Provided that the top EU court decides in favor of the Commission, that ruling could be enforced by imposing financial penalties against the U.K.

Secondly, Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič sent a political letter to David Frost, the U.K.’s Brexit minister, “calling on the UK government to rectify and refrain from putting into practice” the announced extension of the grace period for border checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

This letter allows the two sides to hold mediation talks in the EU-U.K. Joint Committee, which is chaired by Šefčovič and Frost, but also opens the possibility of launching a dispute settlement procedure under provisions in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, which may ultimately lead to Brussels imposing tariffs on U.K. goods.

Šefčovič, however, expressed hope that “we can solve these issues in the Joint Committee without recourse to further legal means.”

The Commission statement argued “it is the second time in the space of six months that the U.K. government is set to breach international law” with its actions, referring to planned provisions in the U.K. Internal Market Bill last year that Brussels also considered to be a violation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and which London withdrew in December.

The U.K. government argues that postponing the introduction of checks was necessary to prevent disruption to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.

A spokesperson said it would respond in “due course,” but added: “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 are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson meanwhile said during an official visit to Coventry on Monday that the protocol “should guarantee not just trade and movement north-south but east-west as well.”

He added: “That’s all we’re trying to sort out with some temporary and technical measures which we think are very sensible. But obviously we’ll look forward to our discussions with our EU friends and see where we get to.”

The latest EU-U.K. dispute has also led to the European Parliament repeatedly postponing its decision on when to vote on the post-Brexit trade deal. MEPs still have to approve that deal before the end of April so that it can fully enter into force.

Still, the Commission today urged MEPs to end the delay, arguing that approving the trade deal could help with the legal action under the Withdrawal Agreement. “Ultimately the dispute settlement mechanisms under the Withdrawal Agreement allow cross-retaliation via the [trade agreement],” an EU official said, referring to potential suspensions of tariff cuts.

Therefore, the official argued, implementing the trade deal “gives you bigger leverage to ensure that the Withdrawal Agreement is respected.”

Cristina Gallardo contributed reporting. This article was updated to include the U.K. government’s response.

Source: POLITICO https://www.politico.eu/article/eu-legal-action-uk-brexit-breach/?utm_source=RSS_Feed&utm_medium=RSS&utm_campaign=RSS_Syndication

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