EU will launch legal action against Britain 'very soon' over Northern Ireland

Harry Yorke
·4 min read
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during question period at the House of Commons in London, Britain March 3 - JESSICA TAYLOR/REUTERS
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaks during question period at the House of Commons in London, Britain March 3 - JESSICA TAYLOR/REUTERS

Brussels has warned it will launch legal action "very soon" after Britain unilaterally delayed implementation of part of the Brexit deal relating to Northern Ireland.

Maros Sefcovic, the European Commission vice-president, said the announcement by the Government on Wednesday was a "very negative surprise".

Boris Johnson has plunged deeper into the bitter row with the EU by announcing fresh measures in Northern Ireland, and the bloc on Thursday has threatened to hit Britain with trade tariffs if it fails to back down.

Just hours after the UK moved to unilaterally extend grace periods for Northern Irish supermarkets by six months, the Government announced it would now seek to ease trade barriers on parcels.

It provoked a furious response in Brussels, with the EU accusing Britain of breaking its treaty obligations in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which mandated no return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Mr Sefcovic said the European Commission was now working on "infringement proceedings" against the UK.

"We are currently preparing it and it would be really something coming to our table very soon. The most precise term I can give you is really very soon," he said.

Maros Sefcovic said the EU would begin legal proceedings against the UK - AP
Maros Sefcovic said the EU would begin legal proceedings against the UK - AP

The bloc has signalled that it will seek to suspend parts of the Brexit trade deal in retaliation.

Lord David Frost, the minister in charge of EU relations, has issued an indefinite relaxation of customs requirements on parcels being sent from British businesses to consumers in the province.

The move will prevent companies such as John Lewis and Amazon being hit by added red tape when delivering to Northern Ireland, with a six-month extension for business-to-business parcels also implemented until October.

On Thursday, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said the EU would have no option but to resort to legal action because it was negotiating with a “frustrating” partner “it simply couldn’t trust”.

Despite the threat, requirements around the import of vegetables, plants and agricultural machinery which contain traces of British soil will also be eased unilaterally by the UK, following claims that imports are being blocked at ports due to an overzealous application of the rules.

While the EU claims the move is a breach of the protocol, which is overseen by a joint UK-EU joint committee, senior Government sources have rejected this claim and argue they are acting to protect Northern Irish businesses and consumers from avoidable trade disruption.

Writing for The Telegraph, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, insisted the measures were “lawful and consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the Protocol”.

He also hit back at the EU’s claims, pointing to the “serious, ongoing consequences” of its aborted attempt in January to erect a hard vaccines border on the island of Ireland.

“In my discussions with Northern Ireland businesses and civic society, it was increasingly clear that decisions needed to be taken now to avoid significant immediate-term disruption to everyday life in Northern Ireland,” he said.

Mr Johnson also insisted the UK was merely taking “temporary and technical measures to ensure that there are no barriers in the Irish Sea, to make sure things flow freely,” and would continue to work with the EU to find solutions.

However, Brussels is now mulling bringing lawsuits against the UK in the European Court of Justice, which retains jurisdiction over the Protocol, as well triggering enforcement measures in the Brexit deal.

The European Commission is considering triggering enforcement measures in the Withdrawal Agreement and the UK-EU trade deal.

If Britain ignores the ruling of an arbitration panel, Brussels could suspend parts of the newly minted trade agreement, leaving British exports to the EU potentially facing tariffs.

Such retaliation must be proportionate to the offence, which in the case of supermarket supplies to Northern Ireland, is likely to be limited.

Mairead McGuinness, the EU financial services commissioner, suggested the development could derail talks on regulatory “equivalence” to allow increased access of UK financial service firms to European markets.

Separately, the European Parliament has postponed setting a date for ratifying the trade deal, which must be done in order for it to come into full effect.

Read Brandon Lewis’ article: Our lawful steps are consistent with a good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol