UK-EU Rift Widens as Brussels Considers Legal Action Against London Over Brexit, Threatens With Sanctions

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LONDON/BRUSSELS – The European Union is reportedly considering taking legal action against the United Kingdom after London announced plans of Prime Minister Boris Johnson to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, better known as the Brexit deal, The Telegraph reported.

The UK government is seeking to rewrite sections of the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement signed with the EU and designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, at the cost of creating a customs border in the Irish Sea.

The European Union is said to be under the impression that it may mount a successful legal challenge before the UK Government passes legislation that will revisit some areas of the Brexit deal reached with the EU bloc last year, specifically relating to Northern Ireland.

Brussels is said to have drafted a document circulated to member states that warns the UK Internal Market Bill represents a “clear breach” of the original 2019 agreement, and might “open the way to legal remedies”, according to Bloomberg.

After the end of the current transition period on December 31, 2020, which went into force after the UK exited the bloc on January 31, the EU could also trigger the dispute settlement mechanism envisioned in the deal. This might ultimately lay open the UK to financial sanctions.

After Johnson’s government published legislation on Wednesday allowing it to re-write parts of the Brexit divorce deal penned with the European Union in 2019, the move triggered consternation in Brussels. The EU called for emergency talks on Thursday in London, seeking to salvage the negotiations aimed at securing a key trade agreement between the two sides.

Eric Mamer, the Chief Spokesman of the EU Commission, tweeted that Brussels was seeking “clarifications” from London. Michael Gove’s counterpart on the UK-EU joint Brexit committee, Maros Sefcovic, intimated that the extraordinary meeting would address the bloc’s “strong concerns”.

“The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation and we expect the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement will be fully respected. I think on that we have to be very, very clear,” he added.

Concerns were earlier voiced by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, who warned that the UK-published Internal Market Bill “breaks international law and undermines trust”. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, arrived in London earlier for a crunch round of talks on the bloc’s relations with the UK post-Brexit.

As the outlet cites sources indicating Barnier plans to confront his counterpart Lord Frost over the current turn of events, an EU diplomat was quoted as saying, “A quick reading of the relevant articles of the Internal Market Bill suggest the UK Government is launching a frontal assault on the Protocol and its obligations. Notwithstanding the consequences for the negotiations, this must be the absolute nadir of four years of negotiations by a country known as the cradle of democracy.”

UK officials are expected to allay the concerns of EU officials, underscoring their adherence to commitments and explicit promises made in the joint committee, writes The Telegraph.

After the announcement, Johnson faced further criticism on the home front from John Major, the second former PM after Theresa May to warn against undermining trust in the UK by revisiting the original withdrawal agreement. The US chimed in with its own dire warnings, as senior Democrats suggested the US-UK trade deal might be jeopardized by the UK’s failure to uphold the terms of the Brexit deal.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was quoted by the Irish Times as saying, “If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”

Downing Street sought to fend off criticism over the announced changes to the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement on September 9, saying the accord had been signed “at pace”, under the assumption that its “grey areas” could be clarified later. The Prime Minister’s Spokesman insisted that protecting the Northern Ireland peace process was “exactly” why the UK was making the changes.

“We are absolutely committed to no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland,” he added.

Speaking earlier at Prime Minister’s Questions, Johnson noted, “We need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol which could lead to a border down the Irish Sea, which I believe…would be prejudicial to the interests of the Good Friday Agreement and prejudicial to the interests of peace in our country.”

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