Brexit: EU pauses legal action over ‘serious’ UK breach of Northern Ireland protocol

Commission halting proceedings ‘in order to provide the necessary space to reflect’ upon UK proposals

Andy Gregory
Tuesday 27 July 2021 23:46
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Watch live as Brexit minister David Frost discusses Northern Ireland protocol

Brussels has paused its legal action against the UK over alleged breaches of the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed last year.

In a surprise move on Tuesday, the European Commission said it was doing so in the hope that solutions to outstanding issues with the UK-EU post-Brexit trade agreement – signed in December – could be found.

The bloc’s executive had launched the legal action in March, after the UK chose to unilaterally renege on parts of the deal by extending grace periods relaxing controls on British supermarket suppliers and businesses trading in Northern Ireland.

Just last week, the Commission’s vice president Maros Sefcovic swiftly rejected the idea of a renegotiation of the Protocol, after new proposals put forward in a “command paper” by the UK’s Brexit minister Lord Frost suggested the agreement on Northern Ireland should be frozen and radically reworked.

Warning “we cannot go on as we are”, Lord Frost had called for the preservation of the current grace periods and the suspension of the EU’s legal action while changes were renegotiated.

But a European Commission spokeswoman said on Tuesday that a pause in the legal action would be used to consider proposals put forward by the UK last week.

“While the EU will not renegotiate the Protocol, we stand ready to address all the issues arising in the practical implementation of the Protocol in a spirit of good faith and cooperation,” they said.

“It is essential that we continue constructive discussions in the weeks ahead.

“With regards to the request for a standstill, the Commission will carefully assess the new proposals made by the UK, in accordance with the necessary consultation procedures, both internally, and with the European Parliament.

“In order to provide the necessary space to reflect on these issues and find durable solutions to the implementation of the Protocol, we have decided, at this stage, not to move to the next stage of the infringement procedure, started in March.”

A spokesperson for Boris Johnson’s government acknowledged receiving a “constructive reply” from the Commission in response to its request for a standstill on existing arrangements.

“We look forward to engaging in talks with the EU in the weeks ahead to progress the proposals in our command paper,” the spokesperson said.

“As we set out in the command paper last week, significant changes are needed to ensure the Protocol is sustainable for future.”

The Protocol, part of the Brexit divorce deal agreed by the UK and Brussels, effectively keeps Northern Ireland in the EU's single market for goods.

This means checks on goods being sent from Great Britain into the single market and in some cases could result in prohibitions on certain products that do not comply with EU rules.

The Protocol was put in place to ensure there would be no hard border with Ireland, but it has instead effectively placed a trade barrier in the Irish Sea.

The UK’s decision to unilaterally extend the initial grace periods agreed with the EU came amid fears that food shortages could intensify when the grace period had been due to end in March.

Additional reporting by PA

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