LONDON: The European Union (EU) on Wednesday set the UK a two-month deadline to respond to legal action as it challenged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to override parts of the Brexit agreement relating to Northern Ireland.
The UK government had tabled a new Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in Parliament earlier this week, which Britain insists is aimed at fixing parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol and denies any potential breach of international law.
The bill is aimed at changing trade, tax and governance arrangements in the 2019 deal but the EU believes the unilateral move is illegal.
“If the UK doesn’t reply within two months, we may take them to the court of justice,” said Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission.
“Let there be no doubt: there is no legal nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement. This is illegal. The UK 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 international cooperation,” he said.
The Commission confirmed that Brussels will also resume legal proceedings against the UK, which it suspended in September last year, for breaching the EU withdrawal treaty agreed in 2020.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a special arrangement that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s Single Market for goods, avoiding a hard border between the UK territory and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member-state.
The arrangement ensured free trade could continue across the Irish land border, which is a sensitive issue because of the history of conflict in Northern Ireland.
This Bill will uphold the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and support political stability in Northern Ireland, UK Foreign Secretary Liz Truss told the House of Commons on Monday.
It will end the untenable situation where people in Northern Ireland are treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom, protect the supremacy of our courts and our territorial integrity.
This is a reasonable, practical solution to the problems facing Northern Ireland, she said.
The Bill follows 18 months of discussions with the EU for a negotiated solution to “fix” what the UK sees as problems which are baked into the Protocol and the government maintains it is consistent with international law. But it has been heavily criticised by senior EU figures.
The European Commission has also launched two new proceedings over claims the UK has failed in its obligations to share trade data and set up border inspection posts.
These legal steps could eventually lead to the UK being fined under a dispute process overseen by the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
The UK government has proposed scrapping some checks on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK and challenged the role of the ECJ in overseeing the implementation of parts of the protocol.
It justified its move under a legal principle called the “doctrine of necessity”, insisting the protocol was causing “peril” to society and politics in Northern Ireland.
Europe’s legal ultimatum relates to action it originally launched a year ago over the UK’s decision to extend so-called grace periods holding off the full implementation of border checks required under the protocol.
That action had been suspended in the light of talks between London and Brussels, which have since hit a deadlock.
The European Commission insisted its “door remains open” for talks with the UK to find a resolution.
The UK has also said that it would prefer to agree to changes with the EU, rather than act alone to scrap parts of the protocol.