The EU Commission has said it is taking a legal action against the UK Government over Boris Johnson’s new legislation aimed at tearing up the post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.
What’s the latest development in the row over the Northern Ireland protocol?
The EU’s executive arm has formally responded to the British legislation published on Monday that would give UK Government ministers powers to overturn key parts of the protocol, the part of the 2019 Brexit divorce deal setting out the trading rules for Northern Ireland.
How has the commission reacted?
Badly. European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said there was “no legal or political justification” for the UK’s legislation and that “opening the door” to change an international agreement was “a breach of international law.” He added plainly: “This is illegal.”
Brussels has decided to relaunch infringement proceedings, started last year, against the UK over grace periods introduced to prevent checks on goods moving from Britain into Northern Ireland, required under the protocol. It has also launched two more infringement proceedings.
The EU says that the UK has not built the necessary infrastructure to perform the sanitary and food health checks at Northern Ireland’s ports, is not providing the EU with effective real-time data on goods entering Northern Ireland and is not complying with the terms it set out itself in December 2020 regarding the movement of agri-food products.
How has the EU’s response changed things?
It marks an escalation in the long-running dispute between the EU and the UK over the implementation of the protocol that became effective last year. The UK has two months to reply to the EU’s action and if it does not, then the commission could take the UK to the European Court of Justice which has the power to fine the UK over non-compliance with the protocol.
Where do the two sides stand?
Very far apart. The UK proposals would require a fundamental renegotiation of the protocol, while the EU said on Wednesday that it will not renegotiate the protocol. Even though the sides are poles apart in their respective positions, each has said they are open to further negotiations.
How has the EU responded to the UK’s specific proposals?
It has rejected the alternative ideas proposed in Britain’s legislation. The UK wants to remove the checks on goods heading from Britain into Northern Ireland that are destined to remain in the North through the creation of a green channel. It also wants to create a dual regulatory regime where — were the UK Government to change its rules in the future, diverging from the EU — traders in Northern Ireland would be able to choose between either EU or UK regulations in future.
What does Brussels think of these ideas?
The EU says the dual regulatory regime would create confusion for consumers, local producers, importers and other businesses and would create a heavy administrative burden. It says that it would be very difficult to monitor and control the goods and to protect consumers and that it would pose a significant risk to the EU single market, particularly in the area of agri-food, raising the risk of spreading infectious diseases across the island of Ireland. On the UK’s plan for a trusted trader scheme to enable the green channel to be created, the EU says this would be entirely based on self-compliance by traders and would create significant risks for the EU single market and “be open to all kind of fraud.” The EU also rejected the UK demand that the European Court of Justice be removed as the final arbiter under the protocol’s dispute resolution mechanism.
Has the EU Commission suggested other solutions?
Brussels has offered more detail on its proposals to reduce customs paperwork and sanitary checks on food products. For example, it is offering to simplify a customs declaration form, cutting it to a “super reduced data set” with 21 fields to be filed out, down from more than 80. It is also willing to expand its own proposed trusted trader scheme, which would reduce the amount of checks, to businesses in Britain as well as in Northern Ireland among other measures.
How has the UK responded?
The British Government said that these proposals “would not solve the problems — in many cases they take us backwards from current arrangements.”
So, for the time being, it appears to be stalemate between the two sides.