The European Union has promised legal action after the British government unilaterally extended a grace period for checks on food imports to Northern Ireland, a move that Brussels said breached the terms of London’s EU divorce deal.
Provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland set out the EU’s course of action. Britain signed them when it formally left the EU in January 2020. Britain says it has not breached the protocol.
The European Commission, which coordinates Brexit and trade policy for the 27-nation EU, initially plans to launch an “infringement procedure” against Britain.
The steps involve a letter of formal notice, requesting a reply usually within two months, followed by a “reasoned opinion” demanding remedial action, also normally within two months. The next step would be to take Britain to the European Court of Justice.
The Commission sent such a letter last October after Britain acknowledged that its Internal Market Bill would break international law by breaching parts of the Withdrawal Agreement. It gave London one month to reply. Britain ended the dispute by dropping certain contentious clauses in December, two weeks before the two sides struck a trade deal.
The next route for the EU would be via the Withdrawal Agreement’s dispute settlement system.
This makes Britain and the EU consult on the issue for up to three months, at which point either side can request that a five-person arbitration panel intervene. The panel has 12 months to make a ruling, or six months for urgent matters.
If either side does not comply with a ruling, the other side can suspend parts of any other EU-UK agreement, such as the trade deal struck in December. This could mean the European Union imposes tariffs on certain British imports.
The European Parliament has postponed setting a date for its vote to ratify the EU-UK trade deal in protest at the British move.
The deal is provisionally applied until the end of April.
If EU lawmakers do not vote by then and the deadline is not extended, the trade deal would cease to apply, leaving Britain and the European Union to trade on WTO terms with tariffs and quotas.
Bernd Lange, the German chair of the parliament’s trade committee, told Reuters that lawmakers preferred de-escalation but were “ready to use this hard weapon”.