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At Odds Over Brexit Deal, Legal Fight Erupts Between EU, UK

It was never going to be easy, but the post-Brexit era is heading into contentious waters after the European Union launched a legal challenge against the United Kingdom over issues related to Northern Ireland.

(CN) — Relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union are turning sour just three months into the post-Brexit era and threaten to get even worse as the two sides adapt to the new realities of their divorce.

On Monday, the EU launched a legal action against the U.K. for unilaterally deciding to delay customs checks on supermarket goods being shipped into Northern Ireland, an alleged violation of a 11th-hour treaty the two sides signed in December to establish their post-Brexit relationship.

The legal action over Northern Ireland suggests the EU and the U.K. may be at the beginning of a rancorous period where they feud over a range of issues.

The EU's action comes nearly two weeks after the British government said it was extending until October a grace period for customs checks on supermarket goods crossing the Irish Sea to Northern Ireland.

But this is far from an innocuous dispute over whether English meat pies and muffins will continue to be shipped for a few more months to Northern Ireland without going through customs checks. Instead, the dispute raises a host of legal and political questions and forcefully brings back to the forefront lingering questions over Northern Ireland, one of the most sensitive and potentially explosive aspects of the U.K.'s withdrawal from the EU following the 2016 Brexit referendum

When it formally left the EU on Jan. 1, the British government agreed to treat Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the U.K. by largely keeping it aligned to EU rules and laws. This was done to avoid the need to set up border checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a prospect that both sides said risked sparking sectarian conflict. Under this arrangement, instead of a land border the treaty effectively set up a border running down the Irish Sea.

But British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has shown an unwillingness to abide by the withdrawal treaty's Northern Ireland provisions, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol. Last year, his government considered passing legislation to override the protocol, sparking a furious response and legal threats from the EU.

FILE - In this file photo dated Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2021, vehicles disembark from a ferry arriving from Scotland at the port of Larne, Northern Ireland. Outlawed Loyalist paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland have written to Britain's prime minister Thursday March 4, 2021, saying they are temporarily withdrawing their support for the historic 1998 peace accord because of disruption caused by new post-Brexit trade rules. (AP Photo/Peter Morrison, FILE)

But members of the hard-right within the Conservative Party – a group from which Johnson rose to power – are calling for the protocol to be scrapped. They claim the protocol is a violation of British law. Also vehemently opposed to the protocol is the main Protestant party in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party. In February, the DUP launched a legal challenge to the protocol.

Maroš Šefčovič, a top European Commission trade official on a joint EU-U.K. committee overseeing the Northern Ireland Protocol, laid out the EU's legal position in a letter to David Frost, the U.K.'s chief negotiator for the Brexit deal. Frost also sits on the joint committee.

In the letter, Šefčovič said the protocol is crucial to upholding the Good Friday agreement, a peace deal that ended decades of sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland, while also safeguarding the EU's single market, which includes Ireland, an EU state. With the EU unwilling to allow goods moving unchecked into its territories, both sides agreed to put customs checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland. But this arrangement has infuriated Protestants in Northern Ireland who feel that they have been severed from the rest of Britain.

“Unilateral decisions and international law violations by the UK defeat its [the protocol's] very purpose and undermine trust between us,” Šefčovič said. “The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives.”

Šefčovič said a legal fight can be avoided if the U.K. continues to deal with the EU in the “collaborative, pragmatic and constructive spirit that has prevailed in our work so far.”

The British government said in a statement that extending the grace period was “lawful and part of a good faith implementation” of the protocol. It said the delay was a “low-key move” not warranting legal action because it was simply gives businesses more time to adapt to the changes. It also said it was ready to work on the disagreement “in a constructive fashion.”  

The DUP, the main Protestant party in Northern Ireland, blasted Brussels and said its “claim to be protecting peace continues to ring hollow.”  

“Rather than showing concern for stability in Northern Ireland or respect for the principle of consent, Brussels is foolishly and selfishly focused on protecting its own bloc,” said Arlene Foster, the DUP's leader. 

The EU's legal challenge triggers so-called infringement proceedings that could lead the matter to wind up at the European Court of Justice, the EU's top court based in Luxembourg. The U.K. faces penalties and trade sanctions and even the suspension of its trade deal with the EU.  

Since the U.K. left the EU on Jan. 1, Johnson's government has taken a combative tone with the bloc. His government has refused to give full diplomatic recognition to the EU mission in Britain, a slap in the face to Brussels. The EU and U.K. also have traded barbs over vaccines, with the EU accusing the U.K. of obtaining vaccine supplies that were meant to go to Europe.  

Meanwhile, the European Parliament has delayed ratifying the Brexit withdrawal deal and some parliamentarians even threatened to veto the treaty, citing the U.K.'s alleged breach of international law when it unilaterally extended the grace period on checks for goods moving to Northern Ireland. The parliament is expected to vote on the deal in April. It is highly unlikely that the EU parliament will vote against a deal that took months of high-level talks and which was approved by the EU's heads of state.  

Brexit also has brought with it a major drop in trade between the EU and the U.K. In January, U.K. exports to the EU plunged by about 41%, contributing to the biggest monthly decline in British trade in more than 20 years. The Office for National Statistics said imports from the EU fell by about 29%. British exports of food, live animals and seafood were hit the hardest.  

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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