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NI Protocol

EU takes action against UK over ‘international law breaches’ on Northern Ireland

The European Commission is taking steps towards proceedings over the alleged breach of the NI Protocol.

LAST UPDATE | Mar 15th 2021, 1:45 PM

THE EUROPEAN UNION is formally launching legal action against the UK for unilaterally extending the post-Brexit grace periods on trade in Northern Ireland in an alleged violation of international law.

In an escalation of tensions, the European Commission is taking the first step towards proceedings over the alleged breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Officials in Brussels said the government had effectively decided to impose an “open-ended extension” to the light-touch regulatory periods, that were due to end this month.

The grace periods cover areas such as supermarket supplies and parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland from Great Britain and mean checks are not yet fully applied.

“The UK must stop acting unilaterally, and stop violating the rules it has signed up to,” the EU official said.

“What we need in order to implement the protocol is mutual trust and this kind of unilateral action that we see from the UK does not build trust.”

The official said a “letter of formal notice” was to be sent to Westminster today over the alleged breaches, marking the beginning of the formal infringement process.

It requests that the UK carries out “swift remedial action to restore compliance with the terms of the protocol”.

After speaking this morning, EU Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic was sending a separate “political” letter to Cabinet Office minister Lord Frost, who negotiated the Brexit deal.

The official said that letter calls on the British government to “rectify and refrain from putting into practice” issues announced by the UK over the grace period on 3 March and calls for bilateral discussions in good faith to find a solution to begin by the end of the month.

The EU official said: “We have not received from the UK a road map explaining what it would do in practice in order for the protocol to be applied in full.

“Yet without going through the joint bodies, unilateral measures were announced on 3 March and now the European Union is confronted with an open-ended extension to certain grace periods, at least until 1 October.

“In other words, this is the second violation of international law on the same issue and we think it is an enormous problem because there are real-life issues behind all of this and the stakeholders need stability and predictably.

“The commission will send today to the UK a letter of formal notice for breaches of substantive provisions of EU law concerning the movement of goods.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the extensions are “very sensible”, with the government denying there has been a breach of the protocol.

The Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement was designed by the UK and EU to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland when the post-Brexit transition period ended on 31 December.

Northern Ireland remained part of the EU’s single market for goods, meaning products arriving from Great Britain face EU import regulations.

The first of the grace periods had been due to expire at the end of March but the UK has pledged to extend them until October in a move widely welcomed by businesses in Belfast.

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