The European Commission launched on Thursday (1 October) the first step of legal proceedings against Boris Johnson’s government over its controversial Internal Market Bill that threatens to break the terms of the country’s Withdrawal Agreement.
The Commission filed a letter of formal notice, which marks the first step in an infringement procedure that could culminate in legal action. Under the procedure, the UK has one month to respond to the EU executive’s concerns.
“We invited our British friends to remove the problematic parts of their draft Internal Market Bill by the end of September,” said European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in a short statement.
She added that “this draft bill is by its very nature a breach of the obligation of good faith laid down in the WA. Moreover, if adopted as is, it would be in full contradiction on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
The Commission president added that the EU executive would work to fully implement the Withdrawal Agreement, concluding that “we stand by our commitments.”
The UK government stated that it would respond “in due course”.
The bill, designed to govern trade within the UK, would breach the Withdrawal Agreement that took the UK out of the EU in January, by giving UK ministers unilateral powers to override the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement on customs checks on goods travelling to and from Northern Ireland and on state aid.
After the bill was tabled in Westminster earlier this month, the Commission gave London until the end of September to withdraw it, a message that was repeated earlier this week by Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič at a meeting with UK Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove.
However, Boris Johnson’s government has insisted that even though the bill breaches international law, it will pass and implement the bill in case it fails to obtain a trade agreement with the EU before the end of the year.
The ninth formal round of trade talks between Michel Barnier and David Frost’s negotiating teams concludes this week, with the UK reported to have tabled compromise proposals on several of the dividing lines, including state aid, fisheries and governance.
The European Parliament has stated that it will not pass any trade pact with the UK that breaches the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday morning, Michael Gove conceded that there were “one or two sticking points on state aid, the level playing field and fisheries” between the EU and UK negotiating teams but expressed confidence that these could be resolved with “good faith”.
The Internal Market bill was passed by the House of Commons on Tuesday evening and will be scrutinised by the House of Lords next week. Although the Lords only have the power to delay legislation by one year, the bill is expected to meet resistance in the UK’s upper chamber of parliament, where the Conservative government does not have a majority.
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]