Brexit

British government 'disappointed' as EU takes legal action over changes to Brexit Protocol

The European Union has launched fresh legal action against the UK in retaliation over Boris Johnson’s plans to unilaterally scrap parts of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the UK’s move had “no legal or political justification”.

The British government said it was "disappointed" in the EU's decision to launch fresh legal action.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson's official spokesman said the latest proposals from Brussels for resolving the the issue would lead to more checks and controls, making the situation worse.

"We will consider these documents carefully and respond formally in due course, however we are disappointed the EU has taken this legal action today," the spokesman said.

"The EU's proposed approach, which doesn't differ from what they have said previously, would increase burdens on business and citizens and take us backwards from where we are currently.

"The infractions are related to the implementation of the protocol in our recently published Bill. It is difficult to see how scrapping grace periods and adding additional controls and checks would be the situation better."

As well as new legal action for alleged failures to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol as it stands, Mr Sefcovic confirmed that existing infringement proceedings which had been paused while UK-EU talks took place would now be resumed.

And he indicated further measures could follow if the UK pressed ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which will effectively rip up key parts of the deal signed by Mr Johnson and the EU in 2019.

At a press conference in Brussels, Mr Sefcovic said the UK Government had set out to “unilaterally break international law”.

The plan would mean “breaking an agreement that protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland, an agreement reached together only three years ago”.

Mr Sefcovic said: “Let there be no doubt: there is no legal nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement.

“Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law as well.

“So let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”

The dispute could ultimately lead to a trade war, with tariffs or even the suspension of the entire Brexit deal between the UK and European Union.

Asked about potential further action against the UK, he told reporters in Brussels: “If this draft Bill becomes the law then I cannot exclude anything.

“But we are not there yet and we want to solve this issue as the two partners should, through negotiations, looking for the common ground and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.”

As a first stage, the EU said it was mounting a “proportionate” response to the Government publishing its Bill on Monday.

The stalled legal action related to the UK’s unilateral extension of protocol grace periods in 2021.

Resuming the proceedings, the EU is issuing the UK with a “reasoned opinion” and giving it two months to respond. If the UK does not respond to the bloc’s satisfaction, it will refer the matter to the European Court of Justice.

The two new infringement proceedings announced today relate to alleged UK failures around Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks on agri-food produce entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain and also an alleged failure to provide the EU with data on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.

The EU is issuing formal notices of action in respect of the two new infringement proceedings.

The bloc claims the SPS checks are not being carried out properly, with insufficient staff and infrastructure in place at the border control posts at the ports in Northern Ireland.

It says the UK is also not currently sharing the trade statistics data required under the protocol.

Mr Sefcovic said the Bill is “extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK”.

“It has created deep uncertainty and casts a shadow over our overall co-operation, all at a time when respect for international agreements has never been more important,” he said.

“That is why the Commission has today decided to take legal action against the UK for not complying with significant parts of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”

But Mr Sefcovic insisted that he still wanted a negotiated resolution to the problems caused by the protocol.

The imposition of checks on goods, plant and animal products crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was introduced in order to keep an open border with Ireland and the EU’s single market.

In an echo of Mr Johnson’s rhetoric on Brexit, Mr Sefcovic said he had “oven ready” proposals to resolve the majority of the difficulties.

The commission’s proposals are designed to reduce bureaucracy on customs declarations and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) processes affecting plant and animal products.

Mr Sefcovic said he was offering “permanent solutions and simple operations of the protocol proposed by the EU versus constant uncertainty with UK ministers having open hand to change the rules on a whim”.

The UK has insisted that its unilateral approach is the only option left to resolve the issues “baked in” to the protocol if the EU maintains its refusal to fundamentally rewrite the terms of the deal.

But Mr Sefcovic said: “I’m sure the UK Government knew perfectly well what they signed up to when they agreed to the protocol – although I have to admit they didn’t do a very good job explaining it to the public.”

Germany's ambassador to the UK has said the EU's trust in Britain has been damaged.

Miguel Berger told the BBC's World At One programme: "I think the most important issue is really to have a relationship of trust in everything we are doing together. That's also why this draft on Northern Ireland is so disappointing.

"We have this excellent cooperation on Ukraine where we have worked together, in Nato, in the G7, bilaterally, and in such a circumstance to have a dispute between the UK and the European Union is totally unnecessary.

"And I think the main issue is really how can trust be re-established?"

Pressed on whether the UK is no longer trusted, Mr Berger said: "I would not go so far to say that, but obviously it has had a negative effect."

Attorney General Suella Braverman refused to say whether the British government's senior law officer, Sir James Eadie, had been asked about the legality of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

Ms Braverman told the BBC's World At One programme: "There's a law officers' convention which precludes me from really talking that much about whether law officer advice has been given, whether it's been sought and how it's been acquired."

Asked about reports that Sir James, who is first Treasury counsel, had been asked about the draft legislation, she said: "I'm not going to comment on a leak."

She added Sir James was "very experienced counsel" who is "leading our litigation strategy here".

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the fresh legal action “represents a step up in a response from the European Union”.

“That said, the European Union is still available and wants to bring a resolution to issues arising from the operations of the protocol through substantive negotiations with the United Kingdom Government,” he added.

“The only logical and rational way forward is, in my view, to commence these negotiations between the UK Government and the European Union, and I would appeal to the UK Government to engage in such negotiations.”

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