EU starts Brexit legal action against UK over 'illegal' changes to NI Protocol

15 June 2022, 10:13 | Updated: 15 June 2022, 12:44

The EU has announced fresh legal action against the UK over changes to Northern Ireland Protocol
The EU has announced fresh legal action against the UK over changes to Northern Ireland Protocol. Picture: Alamy

By Megan Hinton

The EU has announced fresh legal action against the UK as part of a series of measures in response to the Government's move to unilaterally scrap parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

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The European Commission is also resuming legal proceedings against the UK that were shelved last year to facilitate negotiations on post-Brexit trade.

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 European Court of Justice.

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

Read more: Brexit has 'caused a lot of damage' to the UK economy, insists George Osborne

The proceedings outlined on Wednesday do not specifically relate to the content of the Government's controversial Bill to empower ministers to disapply parts of the protocol. The EU said any potential proceedings over the Bill would only happen when it was enacted.

The EU has also provided more details on proposals it first announced in October last year designed to reduce bureaucracy on customs and SPS processes.

An EU official described the bloc's response to the UK's unilateral actions as "proportionate" and "measured but firm".

The UK Government tabled domestic legislation to unilaterally override the parts of Brexit's Northern Ireland Protocol that have introduced trade barriers in the Irish Sea on Monday.

Read more: NI protocol had 'unintended consequences on the oven ready Brexit deal' says Truss

EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic who said Boris Johnson&squot;s actions to unilaterally override elements of the Brexit deal are "illegal" as he announced a fresh round of legal action by Brussels against the UK
EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic who said Boris Johnson's actions to unilaterally override elements of the Brexit deal are "illegal" as he announced a fresh round of legal action by Brussels against the UK. Picture: Alamy

Maros Sefcovic told reporters in Brussels on Wednesday 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" by Boris Johnson's Government and the EU.

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."

Adding: "Despite today's legal action, our door remains open to dialogue. We want to discuss these solutions with the UK Government.

"Given that the UK hasn't sat down at the table with us since February, I think it's high time to show some political will to find joint solutions.

"The UK has stated that for us to talk, the EU must be willing to change the protocol.

"On the contrary, we have always said that our package of proposals has never been a take-it-or-leave-it offer - it can evolve."

He emphasised the need for safeguards to protect the single market and said these conditions were not for the UK to change.

"It's simply and legally and politically inconceivable that the UK Government decides unilaterally what kind of goods can enter our single market."

"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."

Liz Truss admitted on Tuesday that the NI protocol had thrown up "unintended consequences" of the "oven ready Brexit deal" but insisted the EU will be "no worse off" under the new proposals.

Speaking to LBC's Nick Ferrari at Breakfast, Ms Truss said: "Well first of all the reason why we are doing this is to protect the Belfast Good Friday Agreement and the political stability of Ireland.

"We need to sort out these issues about east west trade we need to make sure the people of Northern Ireland can access the same tax benefits as the people of Great Britain.

"And our proposal which we are putting forward in the bill and are legislating on make the EU no worse off. They continue to protect the single market we are supplying the EU with commercial data about everything that crosses the Irish sea, we’ve got enforcement to make sure nobody is violating the green channel and sending goods into the Republic of Ireland.

"So there simply is no reason Nick for the EU to take any action, this legislation does not make them any worse off at all.

"It’s simply not working and if something isn’t working then it is the responsibility of the United Kingdom Government to act."

A majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly have signed a joint letter to Boris Johnson stating their opposition to proposed legislation to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol.

The letter has been signed by 52 of the 90 MLAs, representing Sinn Fein, the SDLP and the Alliance Party.

Sinn Fein Stormont leader Michelle O'Neill is among the signatories, but DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson highlighted that all unionist MLAs opposed the protocol.

In a tweet, Ms O'Neill described the "unilateral actions of Boris Johnson" as "utterly reckless".

What has the Government proposed?

Green channels

Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has proposed creating green and red channels to differentiate between GB goods destined for use in Northern Ireland and shipments bound for onward transportation across the Irish border.Goods arriving through the green channel would be freed of red tape, while the red channel would retain the checks and inspections required by the protocol.

Dual regulatory framework

The introduction of a dual regulatory system to allow businesses selling in Northern Ireland to choose whether they comply with EU standards, UK standards or both.

Changes to tax

Changing rules on state subsidies and VAT and excise duties to ensure Northern Ireland is not excluded from UK-wide policy decisions in these areas as a result of EU laws.

New governance arrangements

Reform of the protocol governance arrangements to remove the European Court of Justice as the final arbitrator in any future trade disputes over the protocol.