EU Takes Steps Against UK to Dispute Over Northern Ireland Border

The European Union is taking the first step to court to force the United Kingdom to abide by the Northern Ireland border agreements.


The EU is angry that the British government has decided on its own not to control what is traded with Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but despite Brexit, it still adheres to the European common market rules. This should prevent border controls on the border with Ireland, a threat to the fragile Northern Ireland peace. Customs officers must therefore check whether products arriving from British soil meet the requirements of the EU next month. But on closer inspection, London does not want to do that because otherwise empty shelves would threaten.

The European Commission is displeased about this and starts a so-called infringement procedure. She sends an official letter of formal notice to the UK government asking for clarification. That is the first step in a process that could end at the European Court of Justice.

London is also receiving a “political letter” in which Brussels complains about the British’s breach of the trust on which the Brexit agreement between the EU and the UK is based. That divorce deed also contains arrangements about resolving disagreements. These may be set in motion if a favourable response is not forthcoming.

The border issue, one of the most significant brain teasers of the Brexit negotiations, is coming to life with the UK no longer complying with EU rules since the turn of the year. London claimed in December that some leniency until April would be enough to arrange the agreed controls on goods crossing the Irish Sea. That’s why Brussels granted that respite at the time, says an EU source.

If more time is nevertheless needed, the committee is willing to think about this, according to the insider. At least if the British provide a clear plan when the controls can start. But that has not happened so far.

“The EU has been flexible and is ready to continue to do so,” said the Brussels source. “But the UK’s response was unilateral action. It violates an international treaty for the second time in six months. That has damaged mutual trust.”

The British disagree. Leniency periods are so often extended, they argue. And London had to take action itself now because consultations with the EU about an extension did not progress.

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