E.U. diplomats and policymakers have been dismayed by the British bill, viewing it as an almost absurdist culmination of years of Brexit antics, with Johnson’s government threatening to undermine an agreement it signed less than a year ago and that hasn’t even fully gone into effect.
The E.U. is now sending a “letter of formal notice,” which could lead to a legal showdown in the European Court of Justice.
Britain has a month to reply. Government ministers earlier acknowledged that their domestic legislation would violate international law. A British government spokesperson said Thursday, “We will respond to the letter in due course.”
During the interim, the two sides will continue to try to hammer out a divorce deal over future trade, travel and relations.
Johnson has pledged that Britain will exit the E.U. with or without a deal when a transition period runs out at the end of the year.
It is a Brussels parlor game at this point to speculate about whether he actually wants a deal. Some believe he does, reasoning that he can ill afford more economic turmoil on top of that already created by the coronavirus pandemic. Countries on both sides of the English Channel plummeted into record-breaking recessions in the second quarter.
But European diplomats also say breaking one accord is no way to lay the groundwork for a second one.
When Johnson signed the Northern Ireland protocol last October, he hailed it as a breakthrough — but later said it was a rushed document that needed substantial amendment.
The challenge has been how to maintain a frictionless, virtually invisible border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to the south. Erasure of a border was a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, brokered by the United States, and was critical to ending three decades of sectarian violence between pro-British Protestants and pro-Irish Catholics. But it wasn’t obvious how to avoid border checks after Northern Ireland left the E.U. along with the rest of the United Kingdom.
The Post-Brexit solution, under the protocol, was that Northern Ireland would continue to enforce the European rules on customs duties and health and product standards, making a border between north and south on the island unnecessary.
But Johnson’s “Internal Market Bill” — passed by the House of Commons and now being considered by the House of Lords — potentially undercuts Britain’s commitments.
The bill would allow Britain to “disapply” previously agreed rules on which goods should be subject to customs checks and set its own rules for state aid to Northern Ireland, possibly undermining the E.U.’s demand for a “level playing field” between the trade partners.
A spokesperson for 10 Downing Street described the bill as necessary to ensure unhindered trade within the United Kingdom.
“We have clearly set out our reasons for introducing the measures related to the Northern Ireland Protocol,” the spokesman said. “We need to create a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the U.K.’s internal market, ensure Ministers can always deliver on their obligations to Northern Ireland and protect the gains from the peace process.”
Von der Leyen said the European Commission decided to start the legal proceedings after the British government ignored an E.U. request to abandon the bill by the end of September.
Birnbaum reported from Riga, Latvia.