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EU launches legal action against UK over NI protocol breach

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

The European Union launched legal action against the British Government over its decision to unilaterally postpone new post-Brexit checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland.

On March 3, the UK decided unilaterally to delay the full application of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland concerning the movement of goods and pet travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The European Commission sent Britain two letters on Monday launching the legal action. Firstly, a formal notice for breaching the substantive provisions of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, as well as the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement. Secondly, a political letter to the U.K.'s Brexit minister David Frost, "calling on the UK government to rectify and refrain from putting into practice" the announced extension of the grace period for border checks between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.

In a statement, the EU's co-chair of the Joint Committee, Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, said: “The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market. The EU and the UK agreed the Protocol together. We are also bound to implement it together. Unilateral decisions and international law violations by the UK defeat its very purpose and undermine trust between us. The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives. That is why we are launching legal action today. I do hope that through the collaborative, pragmatic and constructive spirit that has prevailed in our work so far on implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, we can solve these issues in the Joint Committee without recourse to further legal means.”.

The UK, for its part, says extending a grace period for relaxed rules on goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain is not a breach, and the decision to act unilaterally is justified by the fact that a joint action would be too slow on the grounds that the grace period expires at the end of March.

This political letter allows the two sides to hold mediation talks in the EU-UK join Committee, and Brussels’ aim is that the EU and UK quickly restart talks on resolving problems on the ground. On the other hand, the UK has been given one month to submit its observations to the letter of formal notice. If the UK fails to enter consultations in the Joint Committee in good faith, with the aim of reaching a mutually agreed solution by the end of this month, the EU may launch a dispute settlement procedure under provisions in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that could in turn lead to British goods being hit with tariffs if the UK refused to comply with any decision.

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Source: Financial Times, Politico, and European Commission

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