The European Union has accused the UK of breaching international law for a second time as it formally launched legal action against the Government for unilaterally extending the post-Brexit grace periods on trade in Northern Ireland.
In an escalation of tensions, the European Commission on Monday took the first step towards proceedings that could see the Government defend itself in the European Court of Justice over the alleged breach of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic accused the Government of a breach of trust and said its actions had “once again set the UK on a path of a deliberate breach of its international law obligations”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson defended the extensions as “very sensible”, while a Government spokesman insisted the moves had been “lawful” and that any legal action was unwarranted.
Officials in Brussels said the Government had effectively decided without agreement to impose an “open-ended extension” to the light-touch regulatory periods, which were due to end this month.
The grace periods cover areas such as supermarket supplies and parcel deliveries to Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and mean post-Brexit checks are not yet fully applied.
A “letter of formal notice” was sent to Westminster on Monday over the latest alleged breach, marking the beginning of the formal infringement process.
It requests that the UK carries out “swift remedial action to restore compliance with the terms of the protocol”, offering a potential olive branch to prevent a legal battle.
After a call on Monday morning, Mr Sefcovic sent a separate “political” letter to Lord Frost, the Cabinet Office minister who negotiated the Brexit deal.
Mr Sefcovic told his counterpart on the EU-UK joint committee overseeing the Withdrawal Agreement that the UK had “acted in breach of the mutual trust and spirit of co-operation that we managed to rebuild” towards the end of last year.
He added that the “recent measures once again set the UK on a path of a deliberate breach of its international law obligations and the duty of good faith”.
Mr Sefcovic called on the Government to “rectify and refrain” from enacting the alleged breaches detailed on March 3 and to provide a “credible road map” to implementing the protocol by the end of the month.
In a briefing in Brussels, an EU official told reporters that the UK had already committed the second breach causing an “enormous problem” with “real-life issues”.
“Let’s be clear about what the United Kingdom is doing with these unilateral announcements,” the official said.
“They are actively telling stakeholders not to apply an international agreement so yes we believe that is a violation.”
Mr Johnson told “our friends in Brussels” that the protocol “should guarantee not just trade and movement north-south but east-west as well” as he defended the alleged breach.
“That’s all we’re trying to sort out with some temporary and technical measures which we think are very sensible,” he told reporters during a visit to Coventry.
Later, a Government spokesman confirmed the UK had received the letters and said “constructive” conversations through the joint committee were expected.
He argued the “temporary” measures have been enacted to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland, adding: “They are lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Low key operational measures like these are well precedented and common in the early days of major international treaties.
“This is a normal process when implementing new treaties and not something that should warrant legal action.”
The Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement was designed by the UK and EU to avoid a hardening of the border on the island of Ireland when the post-Brexit transition period ended on December 31.
Northern Ireland remained part of the EU’s single market for goods, meaning products arriving from Great Britain face EU import regulations.
The first of the grace periods had been due to expire at the end of March but the UK has pledged to extend them until October in a move widely welcomed by businesses in Belfast.
The Government admitted last year that its UK Internal Market Bill required for the UK to depart the EU’s single market and customs union could allow ministers to breach international law.
But the offending sections of the legislation were removed after both sides reached an agreement on the implementation of the divorce deal.
Downing Street was preparing to issue a full response after it received the letter.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said that the measures taken are “temporary operational steps intended to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland”.
He said the UK remains committed to the protocol, “but there are issues that have emerged since the implementation of the protocol” and that work is being addressed through the joint committee process bringing together both sides.