The European Union will launch legal action against the UK, after Boris Johnson unilaterally moved to delay the implementation of key parts of his Brexit deal concerning Northern Ireland.
A letter notifying the British government of impending infringement proceedings will be issued around midday on Monday, reports suggest. Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission vice-president, indicated ten days ago that such action would be taken.
The drastic escalation of tensions between the UK and Brussels comes just two months after the UK sealed its Brexit trade deal with the EU – and over a year after the signing of the withdrawal agreement, of which the Northern Ireland Protocol is a part.
If the EU launches legal proceedings under the withdrawal agreement, the case could end up in the European Court of Justice – which, given the visceral hatred of the ECJ among Tory Brexiteers – would risk further damaging fragile relations with the bloc.
Reports suggest that proceedings could be launched under dispute mechanisms in the trade deal sealed by Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen – the Commission president – on Christmas Eve, which would take the dispute to an arbitration panel.
The row was triggered after David Frost, who negotiated the trade deal, took over from Michael Gove as the UK chair fo the joint EU-UK committee charged with implementing the withdrawal agreement.
Šefčovič said Lord Frost’s move to unilaterally extend grace periods for checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea into Northern Ireland from March until October violated the Northern Ireland protocol.
The move came a shock to political leaders in Ireland and the EU, who believed that progress was being made on a row over checks on supermarket goods, parcels and plants, which have led to shortages on shelves in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile Arlene Forster, the DUP leader, has accused the UK of damaging itself in order to appease the EU. Foster wants the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol to be replaced because of disruption to trade from Great Britain to the region.
She said some parcels were still not getting through and major retailers like John Lewis were not delivering despite an extension to light-touch regulation in some areas until October.
The Stormont First Minister said: “There is damage happening to the Belfast Agreement and its successor agreement.
“It has also damaged the UK internal market by putting in place a system to protect the EU single market. What we are doing is damaging our own country.”