The European Commission has reacted harshly to the step taken by the British Government not to apply the Brexit agreements on Northern Ireland. It has set in motion a machinery that can end in one or more complaints before the Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) and, in addition, warns London that, with the step taken, “it puts access at risk” without hindrance. some that companies from that British territory now have to the single European market. The answer has come just a few minutes after Boris Johnson has launched the challenge of not complying with what he himself agreed almost three years ago and it is tougher than what was pointed out days ago in the community capital, where, with few exceptions, always have given prudent responses to British provocations so as not to give excuses to the Tories in his proclaimed intention to break the protocol to the bravas.
Despite this restraint by the EU, the list of disagreements between the two parties on account of Brexit is long. In fact, already in March 2021 the European Commission launched the procedure that can lead to the CJEU, when the United Kingdom for the first time entered into non-compliance with the Brexit agreements in relation to Northern Ireland. “We suspended this legal action in September 2021 in a constructive spirit to give space to a joint search for solutions,” said Maros Sefcovic, the vice president of the Commission responsible for the negotiation with London. “Unilateral UK action goes directly against this spirit,” he continued. Now Brussels is re-launching this file and threatening to launch new ones “to protect the single market from the risks that the violation of the protocol creates for EU companies and for the health and safety of European citizens”, it has warned.
The procedures to which Sefcovic refers consist of sending a summons letter to the United Kingdom for breaching the binding agreement asking for explanations. If these are not convincing or the position is not corrected, Brussels issues a reasoned opinion that also requires a response. And if this step is not successful either, then the Community Executive has a free hand to go to the CJEU. This process is contemplated in the general Brexit agreements, not only in the protocol, the addendum that London intends to breach, so, in theory, Johnson should recognize the competence of the Luxembourg judges on this point. Brussels’ response is completed with the warning that Northern Ireland companies may lose the privileged position granted by the protocol by giving them access to the single and British markets.
When the EU and the UK negotiated the Brexit exit agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol was the most complex part. By leaving the EU internal market, a border appeared between the 27 European states and the United Kingdom, that is, between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is British territory. But this contradicted the Good Friday Agreements of 1998, which ended the terrorist violence that lasted for decades. So to get around it, both parties agreed that the border would be in the Irish Sea (with customs controls within British territory itself) and not at the land points that separate the Northern Irish counties from the rest of the island. In exchange for this, Brussels demanded that the CJEU be the court that would settle the commercial conflicts that could arise on account of this solution, something that London accepted at the time and what it now denies.
Johnson’s discomfort with what was signed is evident from the first moment. Episodes such as the “sausage war”, the controls that were applied in the port of Belfast to the products that arrived from Great Britain and the rejection of the unionist parties, traditional allies of the Tories, have increased that discontent. In order to solve the problems generated on a day-to-day basis by the application of the protocol, which generated bureaucratic obstacles, the EU agreed to open this negotiating process, while making it clear that it was not a question of renegotiating what was agreed, but of resolving the obstacles that were in your daily application. And this is what Sefcovic recalled this Monday: “Renegotiating the protocol is not realistic. No viable alternative solution has been found for this delicate, long-negotiated balance. Any renegotiation would only increase legal uncertainty for the citizens and businesses of Northern Ireland. For these reasons, the European Union will not renegotiate the protocol.”
Several community sources warned that the clash was going to take place, although they stress that they always tried to have a “constructive and positive” attitude. There was some hope when David Frost, the previous head of the British delegation to these negotiations and one of Britain’s most Eurosceptic Conservatives, resigned. He in Brussels has always been regarded as someone who put his ideology ahead of solutions and obstinate in leading the talks to a dead end. Hence, the arrival of Liz Truss, the foreign minister, instilled some optimism for being, in theory, more pragmatic.
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The illusions soon turned to frustration when it was seen that the British attitude was the same. Community sources show their boredom to see how new problems have emerged so that the situation does not advance. And this without even reaching the role of maximum interpreter of the agreement by the Court of Justice of the European Union. They have this feeling, above all, because they have observed that every time the Conservative Executive has a problem – and there have been many lately – number 10 Downing Street resorts to Brexit to distract British public opinion.
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