BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The European Union began legal action against Britain on Monday, claiming London had violated the protocol of a divorce deal on Brexit, which covers Ireland.
The battle represents a bitter new setback for cross-channel relations just two months after the European Union and Britain secured a hard-won trade deal and 15 months after the UK’s troubled split from the bloc.
European Union officials are outraged by London’s announcement of a six-month unilateral delay – Until October 1 – Customs controls on goods coming into Northern Ireland from mainland Britain.
The European Union said this violated the 2019 divorce agreement protocol dealing with Ireland, one of the most sensitive and contentious issues on Britain’s withdrawal from the bloc membership after 47 years.
The protocol is designed to maintain peace on the island of Ireland by preventing the return of the borders between the UK territory in Northern Ireland and the European Union member Republic of Ireland.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson approved the creation in 2019, but reluctantly, as it delineates a de facto border within the United Kingdom and keeps Northern Ireland subject to European Union rules on goods.
The letter sent by the European Union to the United Kingdom started a “violation procedure” that could end, after a lengthy process, before the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which may impose fines.
The UK has 30 days to respond to the letter or see legal action go one step further.
A second message could activate a separate dispute settlement mechanism, on the grounds that the UK has not respected international law by delaying border controls.
This could see the UK, after a long process as well, impose tariffs and other retaliatory measures as part of its trade deal with Europe.
However, the European Union called on London to urgently enter talks and resolve the issue by the end of this month.
In a letter to British Brexit Minister David Frost, EU Vice President Marus Sivkovic asked Britain for a detailed “road map” with a timetable to fix its difference from the Irish Protocol.
Sivkovic said the protocol is “the only viable way to protect the Good Friday Agreement and maintain peace and stability, while avoiding difficult borders on the island of Ireland.”
A UK government spokesperson said London has yet to receive the notification from the European Union, “but it is clear that we will look at the contents and respond in due course.”
This is the second time that the European Union has quarreled with Britain over the Irish question, which it believes has been resolved.
Last year, Johnson’s government knowingly violated international law and the divorce agreement by passing a bill that violated Irish protocol.
She later withdrew the law, though not without sowing the seeds of deep mistrust among Europeans.
An EU official said Brussels was “firm” given that “the UK is in breach of its international obligations for the second time in six months on the same issue.”
“On the other hand, we remain calm and ready to engage,” he added.
Johnson is under pressure over the Irish problem, with pro-British factions in Northern Ireland angry over new trade arrangements they see as unlikely.
Since the protocol came into effect on January 1, police have warned that a frenzy is starting to appear in Northern Ireland.
Johnson promised last week to make “legal” and “technical” changes to the protocol, which would include delaying border checks that would give traders time to “build confidence”.
Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, tweeted that the London approach did not give the European Union a “substitute” for legal action, but he hoped the parties could return to “solving problems together”.
The legal battle begins even before the EU-UK trade agreement is officially ratified by the European Parliament.
Members of the European Parliament have not yet set a date for the ratification of the agreement, due to their annoyance over London’s delays in the customs examination procedures, although the European Union’s executive authority urged them to agree to the deal.