Brussels has launched legal action against the UK over alleged breaches of the two sides’ Brexit deal on Northern Ireland, escalating a dispute that has soured relations and which could lead to British goods being hit with tariffs. 

The European Commission on Monday initiated a process that could lead to Britain being hauled before the European Court of Justice and facing trade sanctions. Brussels said steps by the UK government earlier this month to unilaterally ease trading conditions for Northern Irish businesses amounted to a breach of the two sides’ Brexit treaty.

The British plans were a “violation of international law” and “an enormous problem,” said an EU official, adding that only EU-UK agreements could give the necessary certainty to Northern Ireland about trade. 

EU officials said that Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, had written 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 British moves include steps such as a longer exemption from paperwork attached to shipments of food from Great Britain to Northern Irish supermarkets. 

“They are actively telling stakeholders not to apply an international agreement,” said the EU official of the British approach.

Brussels complained that such moves would create holes in the EU’s trade border with the rest of the world, and were taken without agreement nor forewarning. Another EU concern is that Britain is yet to provide a “road map” setting out when it plans to fully enforce that trade border. 

“The UK must stop acting unilaterally and stop violating the rules it has signed up to,” said the EU official, noting that some practical difficulties for businesses were “direct consequences of choices made by UK government”, such as not joining the EU’s common veterinary area on food checks. 

The European Commission sent Britain two letters on Monday — one setting out a “political” message to the country on the need to honour its obligations under the Brexit withdrawal treaty, and another setting out the grounds for legal action known as an “infringement procedure”. 

EU officials said the political letter could pave the way for an arbitration process that could in turn lead to British goods being hit with tariffs if the UK refused to comply with any decision.

The infringement proceeding letter could lead to an ECJ ruling and a lump-sum fine for non-compliance.

Britain insists that its actions in extending the grace periods for Northern Ireland businesses do not breach its commitments, nor international law.

Downing Street said at lunchtime on Monday that it had not yet received from the European Commission notification of legal action but insisted the measures it had taken were “temporary to avoid disruption in Northern Ireland”.

Number 10 said it remained committed to the Northern Ireland protocol and that it wanted to address issues that had arisen at the border through the joint committee with the EU.

A spokesman for prime minister Boris Johnson said both sides needed to work through the problems as “sovereign equals”.

Brussels’ intention is that the EU and UK quickly restart talks on resolving problems on the ground, although Britain has previously said that its decision to act unilaterally was driven by concerns that joint action would be too slow given the imminent expiry of grace periods. 



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