EU calls for talks as it launches Brexit legal challenge

European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič has hit out at the UK Government over its plans to redraw the controversial agreement on the treatment of Northern Ireland post Brexit, branding the move “illegal”.

Speaking to media in Brussels he said: “On Monday, the UK government tabled legislation, confirming its intention to unilaterally break international law.

“More precisely, to break an agreement that protects peace and stability in Northern Ireland – an agreement that we reached together only two years ago.”

Šefčovič pulled no punches adding: “Let there be no doubt: there is no legal, nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement. Opening the door to unilaterally changing an international agreement is a breach of international law as well.

“Let’s call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”

He described the UK bill as “extremely damaging to mutual trust and respect between the EU and the UK”.

“It has created deep uncertainty and casts a shadow over our overall cooperation,” Šefčovič continued. “All at a time when respect for international agreements has never been more important.

“That is why the Commission has today decided to take legal action against the United Kingdom for not complying with significant parts of the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland.

“We have been withholding this legal action over the last year because we wanted to create a constructive atmosphere to find solutions. The UK government’s decision has left us with no choice but to act.”

He said the EU was proceeding a step further with the infringement process we launched in March 2021 regarding, the movement of agri-food. “If the UK does not reply within two months, we may take them to the Court of Justice”.

“Second, we are launching two new infringements against the UK:

“One for failing to carry out the necessary controls at border control posts in Northern Ireland, by ensuring adequate staffing and infrastructure.

“And one for failing to provide the EU with essential trade statistics data to enable the EU to protect its Single Market.”

“The Protocol was the solution agreed with the UK government to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, and protect the integrity of the EU’s Single Market,” Šefčovič explained. “We know that there are some practical difficulties in implementing it. We have said so openly.

“That is why my team and I had been engaging extensively with all stakeholders on the ground, resulting in a set of solutions put forward in October – showing genuine and unprecedented flexibility.”

He said the commission’s proposals would:

Reduce sanitary and phytosanitary checks and controls by more than 80 percent;

They would cut customs paperwork in half;

Create an express lane for goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland;

Simplify certification: a single three-page document for a whole lorry full of different goods;

And they would allow even the movement of certain goods that would otherwise be restricted, such as chilled meat, like sausages.

“This is a solid offer, making a tangible difference on the ground,” added Šefčovič. “Today we have fleshed out these proposals, proving they can work and they can work fast. We have even published the draft certificates that businesses would need to fill out – showing just how simple and easy they are to fill in.

“Our proposals are all about simplification and therefore in stark contrast with for instance, a dual regulatory regime proposed by the UK.  A dual set of rules – EU and UK – would lead to a mountain of paperwork and bureaucracy, enough to bury a small business in Northern Ireland that wants to profit from access to both, the UK’s internal and EU’s Single Market at once.

“So once again: permanent solutions and simple operations of the Protocol proposed by the EU – versus – constant uncertainty with UK Ministers having an open hand to change the rules on a whim.”

He said the EU wanted Northern Ireland to embrace all the benefits of “this unique position”.

However he was also conciliatory adding there was still time to agree a deal before it went before the courts.

“Despite today’s legal action, our door remains open to dialogue,” added Šefčovič. “We want to discuss these solutions with the UK government. Given that the UK hasn’t sat down at the table with us since February, I think it’s high time to show some political will to find joint solutions.

“The UK has stated that for us to talk, the EU must be willing to change the Protocol. On the contrary, we have always said that our package of proposals has never been a take-it-or-leave-it offer. It can evolve.”

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