By David Hughes, David Young and Sophie Wingate (PA)
The European Union has launched fresh legal action against the UK in retaliation over Boris Johnson’s plans to unilaterally scrap parts of Northern Ireland’s Brexit deal.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said the UK’s move had “no legal or political justification”.
As well as new legal action for alleged failures to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol as it stands, Mr Sefcovic confirmed that existing infringement proceedings which had been paused while UK-EU talks took place would now be resumed.
And he indicated further measures could follow if the UK pressed ahead with the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which will effectively rip up key parts of the deal signed by Mr Johnson and the EU in 2019.
At a press conference in Brussels, Mr Sefcovic said the UK Government had set out to “unilaterally break international law”.
The plan would mean “breaking an agreement that protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland, an agreement reached together only three years ago”.
Mr Sefcovic said: “Let there be no doubt: there is no legal nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement.
“Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law as well.
“So let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”
The dispute could ultimately lead to a trade war, with tariffs or even the suspension of the entire Brexit deal between the UK and European Union.
Asked about potential further action against the UK, he told reporters in Brussels: “If this draft Bill becomes the law then I cannot exclude anything.
“But we are not there yet and we want to solve this issue as the two partners should, through negotiations, looking for the common ground and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland.”
As a first stage, the EU said it was mounting a “proportionate” response to the Government publishing its Bill on Monday.
The stalled legal action related to the UK’s unilateral extension of protocol grace periods in 2021.
Resuming the proceedings, the EU is issuing the UK with a “reasoned opinion” and giving it two months to respond. If the UK does not respond to the bloc’s satisfaction, it will refer the matter to the European Court of Justice.
The two new infringement proceedings announced on Wednesday relate to alleged UK failures around Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) checks on agri-food produce entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain and also an alleged failure to provide the EU with data on the movement of goods across the Irish Sea.
The EU is issuing formal notices of action in respect of the two new infringement proceedings.
The bloc claims the SPS checks are not being carried out properly, with insufficient staff and infrastructure in place at the border control posts at the ports in Northern Ireland.
It says the UK is also not currently sharing the trade statistics data required under the protocol.
Mr Sefcovic said the Bill is “extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK”.
“It has created deep uncertainty and casts a shadow over our overall co-operation, all at a time when respect for international agreements has never been more important,” he said.
“That is why the Commission has today decided to take legal action against the UK for not complying with significant parts of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”
But Mr Sefcovic insisted that he still wanted a negotiated resolution to the problems caused by the protocol.
The imposition of checks on goods, plant and animal products crossing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland was introduced in order to keep an open border with Ireland and the EU’s single market.
In an echo of Mr Johnson’s rhetoric on Brexit, Mr Sefcovic said he had “oven ready” proposals to resolve the majority of the difficulties.
The commission’s proposals are designed to reduce bureaucracy on customs declarations and sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) processes affecting plant and animal products.
Mr Sefcovic said he was offering “permanent solutions and simple operations of the protocol proposed by the EU versus constant uncertainty with UK ministers having open hand to change the rules on a whim”.
The UK has insisted that its unilateral approach is the only option left to resolve the issues “baked in” to the protocol if the EU maintains its refusal to fundamentally rewrite the terms of the deal.
But Mr Sefcovic said: “I’m sure the UK Government knew perfectly well what they signed up to when they agreed to the protocol – although I have to admit they didn’t do a very good job explaining it to the public.”
A UK Government spokesman said: “It is disappointing that the EU has chosen to relaunch legal proceedings relating to the grace periods currently in place, which are vital to stop the problems caused by the protocol from getting worse.
“The UK’s preference remains for a negotiated solution but the proposals set out by the EU today are the same proposals we have been discussing for months and would not solve the problems – in many cases they take us backwards from current arrangements.”
Irish premier Micheal Martin said the fresh legal action “represents a step up in a response from the European Union”.
“That said, the European Union is still available and wants to bring a resolution to issues arising from the operations of the protocol through substantive negotiations with the United Kingdom Government,” he added.
“The only logical and rational way forward is, in my view, to commence these negotiations between the UK Government and the European Union, and I would appeal to the UK Government to engage in such negotiations.”
(EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic)