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EU threatens UK with new legal action over Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

DUBLIN The European Commission on Friday threatened the U.K. with four new legal actions in a dispute over post-Brexit trade rules for Northern Ireland.

The litigation threat is in response to London’s failure to enforce EU-required checks on British goods entering Northern Ireland, and Boris Johnson’s plan to tear up a key part of the Brexit agreement he signed.

The Commission’s announcement came two days after U.K. House of Commons passed the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which would give British government ministers new unilateral powers to change or set aside controls previously agreed with the EU on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. The bill faces further debate and potential amendment in September in the House of Lords, where some peers have vowed to delay its passage into 2023.

Such checks were agreed as part of the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement and its trade protocol, which kept Northern Ireland within the EU single market for goods while the rest of the U.K. left in January 2021. This compromise was designed to avoid checks on goods moving between the north and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member country.

Since then, however, British authorities have refused to roll out many of the envisaged checks at Northern Irish ports in the face of strong opposition from the U.K. region’s unionist politicians, who decry the so-called Irish Sea border as an assault on their own British identity.

The Commission — which revived legal action against the U.K. in June in response to its introduction of the protocol-altering bill — said its intensifying threat of litigation was designed “to secure compliance with the protocol in a number of key areas.”

“This compliance is essential for Northern Ireland to continue to benefit from its privileged access to the European single market, and is necessary to protect the health, security and safety of EU citizens as well as the integrity of the single market,” the Commission said in a statement.

Brussels said it had avoided this step for more than a year “to create the space to look for joint solutions with the U.K. However, the U.K.’s unwillingness to engage in meaningful discussion since last February and the continued passage of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill through the U.K. Parliament go directly against this spirit.”

It accused British authorities of failing to meet treaty obligations that would trigger potentially four separate infringement procedures, dependent on whether the U.K. government replies positively to resolve each complaint within two months.

The Commission said the U.K.’s failure to enforce proper customs and risk controls on goods moving from Britain “significantly increases the risk of smuggling via Northern Ireland” into the EU and makes it easier for traders “to circumvent EU rules on prohibitions and restrictions on the export of goods to third countries.”

It also accused the U.K. of failing to transpose or introduce EU law governing excise duty and VAT rates on e-commerce in Northern Ireland, which meant that exporting firms there could potentially compete unfairly within the EU single market.

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