The European Union (EU) has begun legal proceedings against the United Kingdom after it refused to ditch plans to override sections of its Brexit split-up deal.
An EU deadline for the UK government to remove sections of the Internal Market Bill has expired.
The announcement comes after weeks of controversy since Boris Johnson’s government revealed its plans to put in place legislation that would override a specific part of the Withdrawal Agreement called the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the EU Commission, said that the EU had invited the UK to “remove the problematic parts of their draft internal market bill by the end of September.”
She said the draft bill is, “by its very nature, a breach of the obligation of good faith laid down in the Withdrawal Agreement”. adding that “it will be in full contradiction” of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
As the UK government has not pulled this legislation, the Commission has written a letter of formal notice to the UK government, the first step in an infringement procedure – something the EU commonly uses when parties breach agreements with the union.
“The letter invites the UK government to send its observations within a month, and besides this, the Commission will continue to work hard towards full and timely implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. We stand by our commitments,” von der Leyen concluded.
The UK government had previously admitted that its Internal Market Bill would breach the treaty and break international law in a “very specific and limited way”.
The government claims that the bill is a safety net to ensure seamless trade between the four nations of the United Kingdom in the event of a no-deal Brexit at the end of this year and hopes it won’t have to use the legislation.
The backdrop to all of this is that trade talks between London and Brussels are entering their final phase.
The last formal round of negotiations is taking place right now and an EU summit will take place on 15 October, at which negotiators hope a deal will be on the table for EU leaders to approve.
Both sides say a deal is in sight but they are struggling to reach agreement on certain critical points, most notably the UK’s ability to use state aid to prop up British business.
The EU says this could give British firms an unfair advantage over EU companies. There are also disputes over fishing rights and governance.
While both sides are talking up their readiness for no-deal and pointing the finger at one another, there is broad acknowledgement that the recent drama could be deliberate theatre as the talks reach a climax.
If there is to be a deal, both sides will need to make it appear as though they have held a hard line and forced a concession from the other.
The UK has a month to respond to the EU’s letter, which means a deal could be struck in the meantime.