The European Commission has brought forward four new legal actions against the UK government in a dispute over post-Brexit trade agreements across the Irish border.
The infringement procedures, initiated on Friday, come in response to London’s failure to implement EU-required checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to tear up a key part of the Brexit agreement he signed.
The aim is to “secure compliance with the protocol in a number of key areas,” the commission said, referring to the Northern Ireland (NI) Protocol, which involves the border controls agreed as part of the Brexit deal.
“This compliance is essential for Northern Ireland to continue to benefit from its privileged access to the European single market, and is necessary to protect the health, security, and safety of EU citizens as well as the integrity of the single market,” the commission said in a statement.
The development came on the heels of the approval of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill in the House of Commons, which will give the British ministers new unilateral authority to change or totally call off the NI Protocol.
Brussels said it had avoided this step for more than a year “to create the space to look for joint solutions with the UK. However, the UK’s unwillingness to engage in meaningful discussion since last February and the continued passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the UK Parliament go directly against this spirit.”
On the other side, the UK government expressed disappointment toward the commission’s action.
“It is disappointing that the EU has chosen to bring forward further legal action, particularly on goods leaving Northern Ireland for Great Britain which self-evidently present no risk to the EU single market,” a government spokesperson said.
“A legal dispute is in nobody’s interest and will not fix the problems facing the people and businesses of Northern Ireland. The EU is left no worse off as a result of the proposals we have made in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.”
The NI protocol was a post-Brexit agreement that was aimed at preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland. According to this protocol, NI remains in the EU’s single market for goods as well as in Great Britain’s market, creating a trade border between NI and Great Britain, which requires transitioning goods to be checked and controlled.
This compromise was designed to avoid checks on goods moving between the north and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state.
The EU has proposed measures to ease these checks, but the UK is demanding fundamental reform, and there is growing speculation that it will trigger Article 16.
Article 16 of the NI protocol, which addresses the emergency provisions, allows both the UK and the EU to suspend any part of the agreement that causes “economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”
The EU and the European Commission have repeatedly warned the UK government of “serious consequences” if the UK triggers Article 16.
The UK’s already strained relations with the EU are getting worse as London keeps circumventing treaty obligations.