The European Union today (15 June) initiated legal proceedings against the UK, following the publication of a bill that would unilaterally modify the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Brussels has given the UK two months to respond.
Maros Sefcovic, vice-president of the European Commission, announced the legal action today at a press conference in Brussels, saying: “Let there be no doubt: there is no legal, nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement.
“Let's call a spade a spade: this is illegal,” Sefcovic said as he unveiled a resumption of action it launched last year against the UK for failing to implement full border checks in NI by unilaterally extending grace periods.
In response to this move, a Downing Street spokesman said: “we are disappointed the EU has taken this legal action today.”
Three infringement cases
- One set of legal proceedings related directly to the UK’s purported failure to comply with “significant parts” of the protocol, with one senior EU official warning that the UK could be brought before the European Court of Justice (ECJ) within two months, according to Irish broadcaster RTE.
The outcome could see the ECJ fining the UK, raising fears of a damaging trade war, according to EuroNews.
- A second proceeding relates to the grace periods the UK unilaterally extended last year to SPS goods moving into NI from GB. These, according to the EC, had the effect of “disapplying specific parts of the protocol in the customs and SPS areas” and led to failures to carry out proper checks at border control posts in NI.
- The EC says that UK failed to provide real-time access to UK data on trade movements, required under the NIP that would have enabled the EU to carry out risk analyses.
RTE’s Europe editor Tony Connelly reported a senior EU official saying that “the EU would resume talks with the UK ‘tomorrow’ if the UK returned to the proposals the European Commission presented last October”.
Connelly also cited officials as stating that “the UK’s idea for a green lane for goods were not dissimilar to the EU’s idea of an express lane”.
Despite relatively neutral comments from the White House yesterday, individual US politicians reacted with anger to the bill.
New Jersey Senator Bob Menedez described the move as “an irresponsible move that threatens the twenty-four years of peace”.
The FT reported that US trade representative Katherine Tai met UK trade secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan on the fringes of the WTO ministerial conference in Geneva this week to reiterate US support for continued good faith negotiations.
In his announcement, Sefcovic re-emphasised the solutions put forward by the EU in October 2021, aimed at lessening the number of sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) checks on goods entering NI from GB.
According to Sefcovic, these proposals would reduce SPS checks by more than 80%, create an express lane for goods moving from GB to NI and allow for the movement of certain goods that would otherwise be restricted. These proposals have previously been rejected by the UK.
EU proposals summary
The EU solution is three-pronged:
- an expanded trusted trader scheme that includes operators based in GB and more small and medium manufacturers in NI, including when the goods are returned to GB after processing
- simplified customs formalities for all trusted traders if their goods are not at risk of entering the EU (ie, the Republic of Ireland)
- a ‘super reduced data set’ for customs declarations (from more than 80 pieces of data to less than 30).