The European Union is launching legal action against the UK government’s unilateral moves to rewrite parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the post-Brexit deal, according to the bloc’s executive branch.
The proposed bill seeks to remove customs checks on some goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. It will override parts of the trade treaty that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with the EU less than two years ago.
The EU believes that the UK’s decision to rewrite the protocol, which regulates trade ties between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, is violating international law.
Johnson suggested the steps taken were “relatively trivial” ones to improve trade and simplify bureaucracy between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. But Ireland described the move as a “new low”, and Brussels said it damaged trust.
The 27-nation bloc will restart the infringement procedure launched against the UK government last year after it unilaterally extended a grace period that applies to trade on the island of Ireland. The action had been put on hold in September 2021 as the parties tried to find a joint solution.
The EU will also start separate legal action against the UK for failure to carry out needed controls under the EU rules, and to provide trade statistics data as required under the protocol.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU country – the Republic of Ireland. When the UK left the EU’s free-trade zone, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish land border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Instead, to protect the EU’s single market, there are checks on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The UK’s Conservative government said the Brexit rules are undermining peace in Northern Ireland, where they have caused a political crisis as they challenge British identity, with the Irish region treated differently than the rest of the UK.
Northern Ireland’s main unionist party is blocking the formation of a new power-sharing government in Belfast, saying it will not take part until the Brexit trade rules are scrapped.
Critics say unilaterally changing the protocol would be illegal and would damage the UK’s standing with other countries because it is part of a treaty considered binding under international law.