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EU commission launches legal action against UK for breaking Brexit treaty

‘We stand by our commitments’, says president Ursula von der Leyen

Jon Stone
Policy Correspondent
Thursday 01 October 2020 11:31 BST
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EU commission launches legal action against UK for breaking Brexit treaty

The European Commission had launched legal proceedings against the UK over the government’s plan to break the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Boris Johnson signed the treaty at the start of the year, but the government this month said it would pass legislation that could override part of what was agreed, breaking international law.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said in a statement in Brussels on Thursday that “infringement” proceedings would begin immediately, starting with a formal notice asking for the UK to provide an explanation.

“We had invited our British friends to remove the problematic parts of their draft internal market bill by the end of September,” she told reporters.

"This draft bill is by its very nature a beach of the obligation of good faith laid down in the withdrawal agreement. Moreover, if adopted as is, it will be in full contradiction of the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

“The deadline lapsed yesterday, the problematic provisions have not been removed. Therefore this morning the Commission has decided to send a letter of formal notice to the UK government. This is the first step in an infringement procedure.”

She said that the letter would invite the UK government to submit its “observations” on the issue within a month.

Ms Von der Leyen added: "We stand by our commitments."

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator added: "Full and effective implementation of Withdrawal Agreement will always be an absolute priority for the EU.

"It is the result of long EU-UK negotiations and the only way to protect Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, guaranteeing peace and stability on island of Ireland."

Following the statement Ms Von der Leyen held discussions with Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheal Martin.

The infringement procedure will allow the European Court of Justice to rule on whether the UK has violated its obligations. Any ruling would be binding on the UK at an international level, as the UK is subject to the court’s rulings during the transition period.

Ministers have admitted that their legislation will break international law, but in a “limited and specific way”. The plan would override a commitment by Boris Johnson to put extra controls on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, which are required under the treaty he signed as part of the EU’s customs code.

The UK government now however says the so-called “exit summary declarations” are not necessary and would be disruptive for businesses. 

A UK government spokesperson said: “We will respond to the letter in due course.

“We have clearly set out our reasons for introducing the measures related to the Northern Ireland Protocol. We need to create a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK’s internal market, ensure Ministers can always deliver on their obligations to Northern Ireland and protect the gains from the peace process.”

In the European Parliament, MEPs warned that they might block an future trade agreement if the UK continued to defy the law.

"Breaking International law must have consequences. I welcome the steps taken by Ursula von der Leyen, but am saddened it has come to this," said Dacian Cioloş, a senior MEP who leads Emmanuel Macron's liberal Renew group.

“The UK has diminished trust, which must now be restored and remedied if the European Parliament is to sign off any future relationship.”

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