EU threatens Britain with legal action over changes to Brexit deal on Northern Ireland

The European Union is launching legal action against the U.K. in response to unilateral moves to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the post-Brexit deal between both sides, the bloc’s executive branch said Wednesday.

The bill proposed by the British government on Monday seeks to remove customs checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. That will override parts of the trade treaty that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with the EU less than two years ago.

The EU believes that the U.K.’s unilateral decision is violating international law.

The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol is the part of the Brexit deal that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods.

The 27-nation bloc will restart the infringement procedure launched against the U.K. government last year after Britain unilaterally extended a grace period that applies to trade on the island of Ireland.

The action had been put on hold in September 2021 as both parties tried to find a joint solution. In addition, the EU will kick off further action against the U.K. for a perceived failure to carry out necessary controls under the EU rules, and to provide trade statistics data as required under the protocol.

‘Relatively trivial’: PM Johnson

The EU said the British government will have two months to respond, after which it will consider taking the dispute to the European Court of Justice.

“Trust is built by adhering to international obligations,” said Maros Sefcovic, vice-chair of the European Commission. “Acting unilaterally is not constructive. Violating international agreements is not acceptable.”

WATCH | Northern Ireland election leads to uncertainty over formation of government:

U.K. officials in Northern Ireland urge new power-sharing government after Sinn Fein surge

The U.K. secretary of state for Northern Ireland is urging the region’s major parties to form a new power-sharing government after the Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein captured the largest number of seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Britain’s government maintained its move is justified under international law because of the “genuinely exceptional situation,” and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss blamed the EU for blocking a negotiated settlement.

Brushing aside criticism, Johnson told reporters this week that the proposed change is “relatively simple to do.”

“Frankly, it’s a relatively trivial set of adjustments in the grand scheme of things,” he told LBC Radio.

Arrangements for Northern Ireland — the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with an EU nation — have proved the thorniest issue in Britain’s divorce from the bloc, which became final at the end of 2020. 

Britain and the EU agreed in their Brexit deal that the Irish land border would be kept free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Instead, to protect the EU’s single market, there are checks on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.

But the arrangement has proved politically damaging for Johnson because it treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has refused to return to the region’s power-sharing government until the protocol is scrapped or substantially changed.

The bill to override that arrangement is expected to face opposition in Parliament, including from members of Johnson’s own Conservative ranks.

In Ireland, Prime Minister Micheal Martin said on Monday it was “very regrettable for a country like the U.K. to renege on an international treaty.”