EU launches legal action against UK over plans to breach Brexit treaty

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at EU headquarters in Brussels on October 1, 2020.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen at EU headquarters in Brussels on October 1, 2020. © Johanna Geron, AP

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen declared Thursday that Brussels has begun legal action over the British government's attempt to overturn parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.


"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," von der Leyen said.

London now has one month to reply to the letter of complaint, which could lead to a lawsuit at the Luxembourg-based European Court of Justice and hefty fines for the UK.

The legal action underscores the worsening relations between the EU and its former member at a time when both sides are trying to forge a rudimentary free trade agreement before the end of the year.

On Tuesday, British lawmakers adopted a bill to regulate the UK's internal market from January 1, when Britain will complete its post-Brexit transition period and leave the EU single market and customs union.

The proposed law, by London's own admission, overwrites parts of the withdrawal treaty that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with EU leaders last year, a breach of international law.

Johnson's government has described this bill as a "safety net" in case post-Brexit trade talks fail and the EU tries to impose a customs border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

But EU capitals — including Dublin — see these provisions as key to preventing a return of a hard border with Ireland and preserving the good relations underpinned by the Good Friday peace deal in Northern Ireland.

"As you know, we had invited our British friends to remove the problematic parts of their draft internal market bill by the end of September," von der Leyen said.

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

"The deadline lapsed yesterday, the problematic provisions have not been removed."

Clouds trade negotiations

A statement from the European Commission said that the bill would breach Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement, which states that both sides must "cooperate in good faith" to implement the agreement.

Brussels had already warned that it would take legal action, but Johnson has pushed on with the legislation — despite concerns in his own party and a warning from Washington that it puts Irish peace at risk.

The controversial legislation is now being debated by the House of Lords.

In parallel to the battle over the bill, EU and UK negotiators Michel Barnier and David Frost are meeting in Brussels this week for their final planned round of talks on a post-Brexit trade deal.

Diplomats say these talks will not necessarily be torpedoed by the legal action but London's stance has cast a cloud over negotiations ahead of a planned EU summit on October 15.

If there is no deal by the end of October, European officials warn it is hard to see how one could be ratified by the end of the year, meaning the UK would leave the single market with no trade agreement.

This would exacerbate what is already expected to be the economic shock of Brexit, with a more severe disruption to cross-Channel trade, renewed tariffs and the prospect of a dispute over fishing rights.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP)

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