Tensions escalate as EU launches legal action against UK over Brexit breach

The EU has launched legal action against the UK over alleged breaches of the two sides’ Brexit deal on Northern Ireland.

This has now escalated the dispute and soured relations, which could lead to British goods being hit with tariffs. 

The EU executive body said in a statement that it had sent two letters to the UK government, containing threats of two different paths for legal proceedings against London should the British government not be willing to settle the dispute via negotiations in the coming weeks.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, wrote to his UK counterpart David Frost to urge Britain to “refrain” from putting the unilateral steps into practice, and to call for work on joint solutions for problems encountered by business. 

Britain earlier this month proposed to prolong grace periods from rules that kick in as part of the Northern Ireland deal, which is designed to prevent a hard trade border on the island of Ireland by applying checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

The UK says the waivers are “lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”

The triggering of the infringement procedure means London has one month to reply to the EU and explain or remedy its actions. If the Commission is not satisfied with the response, it can formally request the UK government change course.

Šefčovič said “unilateral decisions and international law violations by the UK defeat its very purpose and undermine trust between us”.

If no resolution is reached, Brussels can refer the case to the Court of Justice of the EU. Provided that the top EU court decides in favour of the Commission, that ruling could be enforced by imposing financial penalties against the UK.

Meanwhile, The White House has urged London and Brussels to work together to preserve the peace in Northern Ireland.

Joe Biden’s spokesperson said: “We continue to encourage both the EU and the UK government to prioritise pragmatic solutions to safeguard and advance the hard-won peace in Northern Ireland.”

The remarks comes ahead of a virtual summit on Wednesday between Biden and the taoiseach, Micheál Martin, to mark St Patrick’s Day, a key date in the American-Irish political calendar.

The EU hopes the dispute can now be resolved through the specialised committee on Northern Ireland that sits beneath the UK-EU joint committee.