Brexit: EU takes action against UK over extension of grace period

First step towards legal proceedings over breach of Northern Ireland protocol

The EU has begun legal proceedings against the UK over its decision to unilaterally suspend some checks on goods travelling into Northern Ireland from Britain agreed as part of the Brexit deal.

The European Commission issued a letter to the UK government, the first step in infringement proceedings over London's announcement earlier this month that it would extend grace periods for certain checks without the agreement of Brussels.

The grace periods cover areas such as supermarket supplies and parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland from Britain, and mean checks are not yet fully applied.

"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," European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said in a statement.


“The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives. That is why we are launching legal action today.”

In a letter to Britain's minister in charge of relations with the EU, David Frost, Mr Sefcovic appealed to the government not to follow through on its announcement that it would continue to waive checks on some goods until October.

The commission described the unilateral declaration as “a violation of the duty of good faith” set out in the Withdrawal Agreement.


Acknowledging the European Commission’s letter initiating legal action, a British government spokesman said they were part of a “normal process” in implementing new arrangements.

“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are temporary, operational steps intended to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland and protect the everyday lives of the people living there. They are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol,” the spokesman said.

“Low key operational measures like these are well precedented and common in the early days of major international treaties. In some areas the EU also seems to need time to implement the detail of our agreements. This is a normal process when implementing new treaties, and not something that should warrant legal action.”

The infringement proceedings alleging a breach of the Northern Ireland protocol can ultimately end up in front of the European Court of Justice. The accusation of a breach of good faith opens the prospect of a dispute resolution process between the EU and UK, which may ultimately allow Brussels to impose tariffs in response, though this is some way off.

In a meeting of EU states last week, the capitals agreed that the commission should be “firm” but “remain calm” on the issue, according to an EU official, reflecting hopes that the heat can be taken out of the Northern Ireland protocol as an issue.


Any legal process would be likely to be lengthy, and the commission hopes that a solution can be found in talks with the UK long before that that would make the proceedings unnecessary.

“What we see is the UK violating its international obligations for the second time in six months on the same issue,” an EU official said. “We hope that this can be resolved through discussion.”

The British government will respond formally to the letters “in due course”, the spokesperson said.

The protocol was designed to avoid a hardening of the Border. Northern Ireland remains part of the single market for goods, with products from Britain facing EU import regulations.

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary

Naomi O’Leary is Europe Correspondent of The Irish Times

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton

Denis Staunton is China Correspondent of The Irish Times