BRUSSELS — The European Union is launching legal action against the U.K. in response to Britain’s unilateral moves to rip up parts of the post-Brexit deal between both sides, officials said Wednesday,
But the European Commission, the bloc’s executive branch, insisted it remained open to finding a joint solution outside of the courts.
The proposed U.K. bill 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 UK’s unilateral decision is violating international law and is unacceptable.
European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič told a news conference in Brussels that he’s willing to keep talks going with the U.K. in bringing long-term certainty to people and businesses in Northern Ireland, but insisted solutions should be found within the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol.
The protocol is the part of the Brexit deal which keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.
Šefčovič, however, didn’t exclude imposing tariffs on U.K. goods in the future if the dispute can’t be settled.
The 27-nation bloc said it 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 joint solution, but the EU says it is forced to relaunch the action because of the impossibility to hold constructive talks with British counterparts.
“There have been only new and new demands coming from the U.K. government,” Šefčovič said.
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.
The U.K. government said its proposed measures will ease the impact on businesses by canceling 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 b 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.
In the final stages of an infringement procedure, which can last for months, the European Commission can refer such cases to the bloc’s highest court. Under the protocol, the European Court of Justice, or ECJ, has jurisdiction to rule on matters of EU law in Northern Ireland.
But the U.K. wants the ECJ to have no future role in deciding disputes involving the protocol, casting a doubt on how the court will be able to rule on the dispute.
“Not respecting the European Court of Justice rulings would be just piling one breach of the international law upon another,” Šefčovič said.
He added that the EU will flesh out proposals it made last October to further facilitate the movement of goods from Britain to Northern Ireland while drastically reducing paperwork.
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.
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.
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 also are 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.