Monday 15 March 2021 11:12 am

EU launches legal action against UK over Northern Ireland row

The European Commission has launched legal action against the UK for its move to unilaterally postpone new post-Brexit checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland.

The European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said today that the UK “must properly implement [the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement] to achieve our objectives”, which is “why we are launching legal action today”.

Read more: Brexit: Depleted UK-EU trade won’t recover until summer, says lorry lobby

Boris Johnson’s decision to extend the grace period in Northern Ireland by six months without the EU’s agreement is seen as a breach of the Brexit divorce deal by Brussels, while the UK has said it is a “lawful” decision.

The terms of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement mean that Northern Ireland still follows EU customs union and single market rules, while the rest of the UK does not.

This has led to a so-called border in the Irish Sea, which has infuriated some Northern Ireland unionists.

New checks on food, medicines and parcels coming from Great Britain to Northern Ireland were set to be implemented next month, however the UK wanted this date to be pushed back to October to give businesses more time to prepare.

The decision to act without EU agreement caused fury in Brussels, with one official saying “unilateral decisions and are not solutions”.

Sefcovic today said: “The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only way to protect the Good Friday 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.”

Brussels will start court proceedings in the European Court of Justice, while also writing a letter to the UK government accusing it of acting in bad faith.

Read more: Global chief executives say UK market is more attractive after Brexit

This second action could be the start of the process for triggering enforcement measures contained in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, with the EU potentially able to suspend parts of the agreement further down the line.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney told The Times: “This move this week by the British government will force a much more rigid legalistic approach to negotiation because there simply isn’t the relationship and the trust there to find a way forward.”