Brussels contends that London has violated the Brexit deal’s controversy-ridden Northern Ireland Protocol.
The United Kingdom has agreed with the European Union that it will respond to the bloc’s legal action over how it introduced new trading rules for Northern Ireland by mid-May, a spokeswoman for the government said on Wednesday.
The EU launched legal action against the former member UK in March for unilaterally changing trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that Brussels says are in breach of the Brexit divorce deal agreed with London last year.
The UK denies that the move undermines the part of the Brexit deal that governs trade to the province, saying it extended the grace period for checks on goods moving to Northern Ireland to ease their passage.
“In line with precedent that typically allows two months to respond to proceedings of this kind, we have agreed with the EU that we will respond to the Letter of Formal Notice by mid-May,” the spokeswoman said.
“We’ve been clear that the measures we have taken are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
The UK-EU withdrawal agreement leaves the province of Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods – given its open border with EU member country Ireland – and so requires checks on items arriving there from other parts of the UK.
Some checks were due to start when a grace period expired at the end of March, but London decided to extend that to October 1 to help Northern Irish retailers source supplies.
Since the UK exited the EU’s economic orbit at the end of last year, some supermarkets in the region have suffered food shortages and businesses have warned they are struggling to cope with the new red tape.
The two sides are due to meet on Thursday for talks on Northern Ireland. The summit is unlikely to reach a breakthrough but is seen more as a staging post while the pair try to find a way to ease differences.
Riots rock the region
The diplomatic moves come after a bout of recent riots in several towns and cities across Northern Ireland, where Brexit has shaken a delicate political balance.
A 1998 peace deal ended decades of fighting in the region between mostly Catholic nationalists pushing for a united Ireland and mostly Protestant unionists, or loyalists, who wanted Northern Ireland to remain part of the UK.
Preserving that peace without allowing the UK a back door into the EU’s markets through the 310-mile (500km) UK-Irish land border was one of the thorniest issues of Brexit divorce talks.
The arrangement eventually hammered out by London and Brussels was designed to avoid checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member, because an open border on the island has helped underpin the peace process built on the 1998 Good Friday accord.
But the Brexit divorce deal’s controversial Northern Ireland Protocol, which effectively created a border in the Irish Sea, has raised the ire of loyalists.
The riots, which have predominantly been concentrated in pro-unionist areas, have also come against the backdrop of worsening relations between the leading parties in Northern Ireland’s local power-sharing government.
The sporadic violence, which left many police officers injured, has eased in recent days after appeals for calm from across the political spectrum.