The EU launched legal proceedings against Britain on Monday (15 March), alleging that London had broken a protocol of its Brexit divorce agreement covering Ireland.
The battle marks a bitter new setback to post-Brexit cross-Channel relations just two months after the EU and Britain secured a hard-won trade deal and 15 months after the UK’s tumultuous split from the bloc.
EU officials are angry at an announcement by London of a unilateral six-month delay — until 1 October — of custom controls on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.
The EU said this violates the protocol of the 2019 divorce pact that deals with Ireland, one of the most sensitive and fought over issues of Britain’s break from bloc membership after 47 years.
“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”, Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič stated.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson agreed to the set-up in 2019, but only reluctantly, as it draws a de facto border within the United Kingdom and keeps Northern Ireland subject to EU rules on goods.
In a letter sent by the EU to the UK, Brussels began an “infringement procedure” that may end up, after a lengthy process, before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which may impose fines.
The UK has 30 days to respond to the letter or otherwise see the legal proceedings go one step further.
A second letter could activate a separate dispute settlement mechanism, on the grounds that the UK has not respected international law by delaying the border controls.
This could see the UK, also after a long process, inflicted with tariffs and other retaliatory measures within its trade deal with Europe.
However, that letter invited London to urgently enter talks to resolve the matter, hopefully by the end of this month.
‘Firm, but ready to engage’
It is the second time the EU has entered into a legal dust-up with Britain over the Irish question.
Last year, the Johnson government said it would knowingly violate international law by passing a bill that would violate the Irish protocol.
It later withdrew the law, though not without sowing deep distrust among the Europeans.
An EU official said that Brussels was being “firm” given that “the UK is violating its international obligations for a second time in six months on the same issue.”
“On the other hand, we remain calm and ready to engage,” he added.
The legal battle begins even before the EU-UK trade pact is formally ratified by the European Parliament.
MEPs have yet to set a date for its ratification, annoyed by London’s delays on the customs checks.
The lawmakers must do so by the end of April or risk seeing the trade deal annulled.