The EU opened legal proceedings against the UK on Wednesday (15 June) in the wake of London’s decision to table a new law that would unilaterally override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol.
The move by the Commission, which gives the UK government two months to respond, and which could eventually end up before the European Court of Justice, was expected after Boris Johnson’s government tabled legislation on Monday designed to scrap customs checks on goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland and give businesses in Northern Ireland the right to choose whether to follow EU or UK standards.
Addressing reporters on Wednesday, European Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, said that there was “no legal or political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement”.
“So let’s call a spade a spade, this is illegal,” he added.
Šefčovič described the bill as “extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK.”
Johnson’s government argues that it has been forced to legislate because of the anger felt by the Unionist community in Northern Ireland about the protocol, which essentially carves the territory out of the UK’s own single market. The protocol was negotiated and agreed upon by Johnson in 2019 as part of the deal that took the UK out of the EU.
Despite tabling the bill, UK ministers insist that they want to negotiate a solution on the implementation of the protocol and accuse the EU of intransigence. In an apparent bid to head off such criticism, Šefčovič said that the EU executive’s latest proposals would reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by more than 80% and cut customs paperwork in half.
Other plans to ease the administrative burden on businesses would include the creation of an express lane for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, and a simplified certification process that would require a single three-page document for a lorry full of different goods.
Šefčovič remarked that this solution was more business-friendly than the UK’s plan of offering dual standards.
“A dual set of rules – EU and UK – would lead to a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy, enough to bury a small business in Northern Ireland that wants to profit from access to both the UK’s internal and EU’s single market at once,” he said.
The EU executive announced that it was opening infringement proceedings against the UK for failing to carry out necessary controls at border control posts in Northern Ireland, and another for “failing to provide the EU with essential trade statistics data to enable the EU to protect its single market.”
Neither of these proceedings relate to the new UK law, with Šefčovič leaving open the possibility for future sanctions should the bill become law.
“Trust is built by adhering to international obligations. Acting unilaterally is not constructive. Violating international agreements is not acceptable. The UK is not respecting the protocol. That is why we are launching these infringement proceedings today,” said Šefčovič.
The Commission Vice President added that he was “still convinced that with genuine political will to make the protocol work, we can reach our objectives”.
Johnson has said that sanctions related to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and EU would be a ‘gross overreaction’.
[Edited by Nathalie Weatherald]