EU threatens Britain with legal action over changes to Brexit deal on Northern Ireland


The European Union is launching legal action against the U.K. in response to unilateral moves to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the post-Brexit deal between both sides, the bloc’s executive branch said on Wednesday.

The bill proposed by the British government on Monday seeks to remove customs checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. That will override parts of the trade treaty that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with the EU less than two years ago.

The EU believes that the U.K.’s unilateral decision is violating international law.

The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol is the part of the Brexit deal that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.

The 27-nation bloc will restart the infringement procedure launched against the U.K. government last year after Britain unilaterally extended a grace period that applies to trade on the island of Ireland.

The action had been put on hold in September 2021 as both parties tried to find a joint solution. In addition, the EU will kick off further action against the U.K. for a perceived failure to carry out necessary controls under the EU rules, and to provide trade statistics data as required under the protocol.

‘Relatively trivial’: PM Johnson

The EU said the British government will have two months to respond, after which it will consider taking the dispute to the European Court of Justice.

“Trust is built by adhering to international obligations,” said Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission. “Acting unilaterally is not constructive. Violating international agreements is not acceptable.”

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic holds documents as he speaks during a news conference at European Union headquarters in Brussels on Wednesday. Britain’s government on Monday proposed new legislation that would unilaterally rewrite post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland, despite opposition from some U.K. lawmakers and the EU. (Geert Vanden Wijngaert/The Associated Press)

The British government called the EU’s move “disappointing.”

“The U.K.’s preference remains for a negotiated solution, but the proposals set out by the EU today are the same proposals we have been discussing for months,” it said.

Brushing aside criticism, Johnson told reporters this week that the proposed change is “relatively simple to do.”

“Frankly, it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things,” he told LBC Radio.

Arrangements for Northern Ireland — the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with an EU nation — have proved the thorniest issue in Britain’s divorce from the bloc, which became final at the end of 2020. 

Few stakeholders happy

Britain and the EU agreed in their Brexit deal that the Irish land border would be kept free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, to protect the EU’s single market, there are checks on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.

But the arrangement has proved politically damaging for Johnson because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has refused to return to the region’s power-sharing government until the protocol is scrapped or substantially changed.

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British unionists in Northern Ireland say the new checks have put a burden on businesses and frayed the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. — seen by some unionists as a threat to their British identity.

Britain’s Conservative government says the Brexit rules are also undermining peace in Northern Ireland, where they have caused a political crisis. Northern Ireland’s main unionist party is blocking the formation of a new power-sharing government in Belfast, saying it won’t take part until the Brexit trade rules are scrapped.

The bill to override that arrangement is expected to face opposition in Parliament, including from members of Johnson’s own Conservative ranks.

The legislation the British government proposed will take months to wind its way through Parliament, and officials appear to be hoping they will get a new deal with the EU in the meantime.

The U.K. government said its proposed measures will ease the impact on businesses by cancelling checks and reducing paperwork for goods coming from Britain into Northern Ireland and which are staying there. Goods moving into Ireland or the EU market would continue to be checked at Northern Ireland ports.

According to EU officials who weren’t authorized to speak publicly because of the sensitivity of the topic, there were seizures last year at Northern Ireland ports of high-valued electronic products, tobacco, counterfeit medicine, smartphones and illegal drugs that could have been smuggled into the EU market.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU country — the Republic of Ireland. When Britain left the EU and its borderless free-trade zone, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish land border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday that it was “very regrettable for a country like the U.K. to renege on an international treaty.”

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