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Brexit: European Commission begins legal action against UK over Internal Market Bill

The Bill threatens to overwrites parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, which the UK government admitted was a breach of international law.

Image: Stephanie Lecocq via PA Images

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has begun legal action against the UK government over domestic legislation that threatens to overwrite the parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

In a statement issued this morning, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said that the bill was a breach of “good faith” provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement (Article 5), and would be “in full contradiction” of and “flagrantly violate” the Northern Ireland Protocol. 

The European Commission said that representatives of the UK government has acknowledged this violation, and that its purpose was to allow it to depart “in a permanent way” from the obligations stemming from the Protocol on Northern Ireland.

A letter of formal notice has been sent to the UK government, which marks the beginning of a formal infringement process against the United Kingdom. It has one month to reply to today’s letter.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin, who is in Brussels today for a special meeting of the European Council, told RTÉ News that the action was “to be expected”.

The legislation in question, the Internal Market Bill, threatens to overwrite elements of the Withdrawal Agreement and give unilateral power to a British minister to allocate State aid to firms in Northern Ireland, and decide what goods need customs declarations.

As part of the Withdrawal Agreement, the European Union needs to be consulted on these two issues to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has admitted in the House of Commons that the bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”. UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said that the bill would only be used as a “safety net” if the EU did not act in good faith.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie earlier this week, Fine Gael TD Neale Richmond said that the EU will pursue “all legal options” if needs be.

“The EU can pursue and win a legal challenge – but the EU isn’t talking that up because we don’t need two loaded revolvers on the table.”

Reacting to today’s news, Richmond said that the infringement action was “regrettable but inevitable”, and that international responsibilities “are binding”.

The Withdrawal Agreement provides that during the transition period (31 January – 31 December 2020), the Court of Justice of the European Union has jurisdiction in relation to the United Kingdom, as well as how the Withdrawal Agreement is interpreted and implemented.

The Internal Market Bill

On Tuesday, MPs passed the Internal Market Bill, meaning it progresses to the House of Lords as the next step. The Bill needs to be passed in both Houses to become law. But the Tory party don’t have a majority here, and so are expected to make substantial changes to the bill which would pass it back to the House of Commons.

Today Baroness Helena Kennedy QC, a Labour peer, said members of the House of Lords had “huge experience from being involved in the international domain”, and could reject the Bill as being a “step too far”.

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Asked if peers will seek to amend the legislation, she said: “Forget about amending it, we are going to be voting against it and there will be opportunities to do that.”

She said the legislation represents a “flagrant breach of international law”, and accused Boris Johnson’s government of acting like US President Donald Trump’s administration in how they were “tearing up” the law.

You are going to have a lot of very powerful voices speaking about what this does to Britain in the world.

“This is Trumpism, this is what this is, this is Trumpism, which is you tear down the very things that have been built up in the rules-based world since the end of the Second World War,” she told BBC Radio Scotland’s Good Morning Scotland programme.

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