Maroš Šefčovič says Brussels will initiate fresh legal action against the UK over treaty obligations.
Brussels has made a thinly masked threat to Westminster to reject the “illegal” attempt by Boris Johnson to single-handedly rewrite the post-Brexit arrangements for Northern Ireland, as the EU initiated fresh legal action against the United Kingdom.
Maroš Šefčovič, the EU’s Brexit commissioner, said one frozen case against the UK for former breaches of the withdrawal agreement had been relaunched and two additional proceedings over other unfulfilled treaty obligations would commence.
The UK will require to explain its past failures to inspect imports from Britain to Northern Ireland within two months, or face possibly hefty fines from the European court of justice. Letters of formal notice of action will also be issued over a lack of border posts and data sharing.
Nevertheless, the EU is hesitating in taking action over the new legislation submitted on June 13, which suggests rewriting the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement, until it becomes law, a process that could carry on for 18 months or longer.
Šefčovič suggested that terminating parts of the trade deal could not be disregarded but he used a press conference in Brussels to request MPs and peers to prevent the Johnson administration from ruining the UK’s reputation and inciting a trade war.
“We are now bringing the argument also into the debate, which I’m sure will be in the House of Commons and House of Lords, that there is a better way to solve these issues than having these legal disputes with the EU.”
“We expect that also the debate in the British parliament in the House of Commons and House of Lords will take some time. Of course, if this draft bill will become the law, then of course I cannot exclude anything. But we are not there yet.”
Šefčovič said he would “call a spade a spade”, and following suggestions that the UK could dismiss ECJ rulings against it, given Johnson’s aim to tear apart previous agreements, he cautioned that Britain’s reputation was at stake.
“Not respecting the European court of justice rulings will be just piling one breach of international law on another. Does the UK want to go in that direction? And the rule of law is something that we are discussing at every international forum these days.”
“This way forward, is it compatible with the proud British traditions of upholding and respecting the rule of law and international law in that regard? So that’s, I would say, the political question I’m throwing up and, of course, how other potential partners would look at the UK when they will be negotiating that agreement.”
“Will they be changed in one year, in two years? Will they really stick? Will they be respected? I think these are, of course, the questions for the UK government to respond.”
Johnson has said the draft legislation rewriting the arrangements for Northern Ireland was both “trivial” in its scope and also legal due to the absolute “necessity” to breach treaty obligations despite a risk to the balance of the Good Friday agreement.
Šefčovič rejected the claims adding that:
“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 UK bill is extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK. It has created deep uncertainty and casts the shadow on our overall cooperation at the time and respect for international agreements has never been more important.”
Under the protocol worked out by Johnson in 2019, Northern Ireland essentially stays in the single market and the EU’s customs rules are implemented down the Irish Sea to stay away from a border on the island of Ireland.
Under the new legislation submitted on Monday, which prompted disputes in Dublin, the government would cancel checks for firms selling goods from Great Britain heading for Northern Ireland rather than the European Union.
The government expects the creation of a “green lane” of fewer checks for those selling goods destined for Northern Ireland and a “red lane” with existing checks for goods heading for EU countries.
EU officials said they did not see any key differences between this proposal and those put forward by the European Commission for an “express lane”. “Effectively we are talking about the same thing,” the official said.
Nonetheless, the legislation would also enable firms in Great Britain exporting to Northern Ireland to pick out between fulfilling EU or UK standards on regulation, which are expected to increasingly differ. EU officials said this presented a direct risk to the single market and that there was sufficient evidence that the existing arrangements and the failure to apply controls had already encouraged smugglers.
Extra measures include bringing Northern Ireland’s tax break and laying out policies in line with the rest of the UK, and correcting mistakes of trade disputes so that they are solved by independent arbitration rather than the European court of justice – a clause recommended by Conservative Eurosceptics.
“Removing the role of the court of justice is out of the question”, the EU official added. “And in fact, it would be found illegal by the court itself, so it’s kind of pointless.”
Brussels remains ready for further talks and two papers were published pointing out the flexibilities that are on offer to reduce the burden of checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland.
The official said:
“We know that the UK suggests that, as a result of protocol, for a single lorry moving from Sainsbury’s in GB to Sainsbury’s in Northern Ireland an enormous amount of paperwork has to be filled in, and what we’re publishing today are documents which say, no, actually it is three pages for an entire truck.”