The European Commission took legal steps against Britain on Monday for allegedly breaking Brexit deal rules by dragging its feet on implementing customs system changes in Northern Ireland.
The European Union (EU) executive branch announced it had sent two letters to London.
One triggers the first step of infringement proceedings under EU law, and the other is a complaint to London about violations of the withdrawal agreement.
The first step could ultimately see London taken to the EU high court, though this process could take months or more.
“The United Kingdom must stop acting unilaterally, and stop violating the rules it has signed up to,” an EU official said on condition of anonymity.
Brussels accuses London of extending the transition phase of a key protocol for food deliveries to Northern Ireland from the agreed end-of-March expiry date until October without consulting the European Union.
As part of the Brexit deal, British-administered Northern Ireland has remained aligned with EU customs rules, so as to avoid setting up a politically sensitive hard border with EU state the Republic of Ireland.
This creates a goods border between Northern Ireland and other parts of the United Kingdom where imports must be controlled, causing a major headache for the British food and logistics industries.
According to commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic, these arrangements “preserve peace and stability” at the Irish border while also protecting the integrity of the EU single market.
“The EU and the UK agreed on the Protocol together. We are also bound to implement it together,” Sefcovic said in a written statement.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson always played down the severity of issues that checking goods would cause.
But two months after Britain left the EU single market and customs union, many companies are facing difficulties.
Voices from Britain’s logistics and food industries have warned of losses to profits over the time-consuming and sometimes expensive paperwork needed to export animal products since Britain left the single market on Jan. 1.
Northern Ireland faced food shortages, while Scottish fishermen described the new necessary red tape as “unworkable.”
When unveiling the extension earlier this month, Britain’s Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told lawmakers Northern Irish citizens would have faced more empty food shelves if the government had not intervened.
He added the move was not an attempt to undermine the protocol, or a prelude to a bid to ditch it entirely.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which is staunchly pro-British and supported Brexit, is also determined to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol.
It has the country “suffering real economic and societal difficulties,” according to DUP leader and Northern Ireland First Minister Arlene Foster.
Politicians in Ireland and Johnson have meanwhile stated this is not an option.
A slim majority of the British people voted for Brexit in a 2016 referendum when Johnson co-led the official Vote Leave campaign. In Northern Ireland, however, a decisive majority backed “remain.”
Decades of conflict in Northern Ireland pitched those who identify as British against those identified as Irish.
The Republic of Ireland cast off centuries of British rule in the 1920s, but at the cost of the island being partitioned.
A civil war in Northern Ireland came to an end with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, but Brexit has stoked tensions by raising again questions largely silenced when both sides were equal members of the EU about whether to stay aligned with the EU and the Republic Ireland, or keep close ties to Britain. (Dpa/NAN)