EU takes legal action against Great Britain

The European Union has initiated proceedings against Great Britain for violating the EU Withdrawal Treaty. The EU Commission announced this on Monday in Brussels. The background is a dispute over the Brexit special rules for the British province of Northern Ireland. Brussels accuses London of arbitrarily changing agreements and thus violating the contract negotiated in 2019.

The infringement proceedings are likely to put a strain on the already strained EU-UK relations. The so-called Northern Ireland Protocol in the Withdrawal Treaty provides that some rules of the EU internal market continue to apply to Northern Ireland. This should make controls at the land border with the EU state Ireland on the common island superfluous. But this creates a goods border between Northern Ireland and the rest of Great Britain. Imports need to be controlled. Although a grace period of a few months with reduced controls was agreed, companies complain of problems. In Northern Ireland, supermarket shelves remained empty at times.

The first transition phase after completion of Brexit at the turn of the year should be over by the end of March. According to this, suppliers of animal products should have health certificates for deliveries from the UK to Northern Ireland. But the British government announced a unilateral extension with reference to “often excessive consequences” of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Crisis talks between the EU and Great Britain did not help. A few days later, London again created a fait accompli suspending an import ban on plants potted in soil from Britain.

The responsible EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic reacted sharply and reproached the British government for breach of contract and trust. The Irish government was also outraged. British Brexit representative David Frost replied that the British measures were legal. He spoke of “temporary, operational steps”.

The Northern Ireland question is considered to be one of the most difficult in connection with Britain’s exit from the EU in 2020. In the British province, supporters of an independent united Ireland and supporters of the union with Great Britain fought for decades. The conflict was defused with the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. After that, both parts of the island became a common economic area with no visible border. The fear is that Brexit will divide the island again.

For the UK, the Northern Ireland Rules are politically sensitive as Northern Ireland may feel disconnected from the rest of the UK. The EU, on the other hand, insists on import controls in Northern Ireland, since without them a kind of back door into the EU internal market could arise. In the worst case, controls would have to be carried out at the inner-Irish border – politically unacceptable for the EU and its member Ireland.

The tone between London and Brussels is now very rough, most recently in the conflict over the corona vaccine. EU Council President Charles Michel accused Great Britain of having imposed an export ban. London rejected this indignantly. It is primarily about the agent of the British-Swedish manufacturer Astrazeneca, which produces large quantities in Great Britain and also delivers there. However, the company does not comply with delivery obligations to the EU, including with reference to export restrictions.

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