Latest development makes the world a very uncomfortable place for Boris Johnson and his government
It has been threatened for three weeks – Brussels is taking London to court for breaking international law.
The road ahead is complex, long and uncertain. So, let’s answer the key questions.
That is the first question before moving through the many complexities of this tortured issue. Granted, any eventual sanctions against London – after years in court – may be somewhat illusory since they are leaving anyway.
But, in the immediate term, it makes the world a very uncomfortable place for Boris Johnson and his London government. They stand before the community of nations accused of flouting international law at a time when they are seeking new international trade deals and alliances. This further dilutes any residual goodwill towards them within the EU.
Yes – it’s ground-breaking stuff.
Brussels-versus-member government legal action happens regularly. But it’s usually about water pollution, breaking EU grant-aid rules, destroying wildlife habitats or something along those lines.
The scale of this legal case is completely unheard of.
Mainly – but not entirely. The UK finalised a “political divorce” with the EU on a political basis on January 31 last.
Talks on a “commercial divorce” are ongoing, with a standstill on free-trade arrangements to continue only until December 31.
The basis of the EU-UK divorce is the so-called “Withdrawal Agreement”. It has an appended section on special treatment for Northern Ireland.
That is called a “protocol” in the jargon and has full legal status.
In essence, it says that there will be no EU border checks in Ireland on goods going between the Republic and the North. But to protect the integrity of the EU border-free single market there will have to be limited checks on goods coming into the North from England, Wales and Scotland. That is to prevent the Republic of Ireland becoming an EU market back-door for product which does not meet agreed Brussels standards.
Absolutely. That’s a red rag to Northern unionists and some English Conservatives. But Boris Johnson – with compromise-brokering help from then-Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – signed up for this.
EU-UK talks were ongoing about how this could be kept to a minimum. But Brussels officials were suspicious about foot-dragging by London on putting in customs infrastructure and staff recruitment.
Then, on September 10, Mr Johnson dropped the bombshell. It was called the UK Internal Market Bill. The UK government admitted this breached international law but only in a technical and limited way. London justified it as protecting trade with Northern Ireland and the other UK territories.
It reserves the right to change the post-Brexit status of the North. It allows London to decide, all by itself, what product going into the North would be subject to checks.
It yet again raises the question of north-south checks in Ireland. It flouts the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which is fully recognised in the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. The EU sees it as a potential threat to peace in Ireland.
The EU gave the UK until September 30 to withdraw the offending clauses from its draft law. They refused and, in fact, the bill has cleared the House of Commons and moves to the House of Lords.
Today, October 1, EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, announced the start of legal proceedings.
It has not helped because it further degraded already strained EU-UK relations.
But there is an EU determination not to walk away from these talks, which are rapidly running out of time.
A legal letter has been issued and London has a month to reply. This is a slow burner.
The best hope is that some kind of rabbit can be pulled out of a hat in EU-UK trade talks to salvage some limited post-Brexit trade deal.
Ireland remains “piggy-in-the-middle” with tens of thousands of Irish jobs on the line.
European and British trade negotiators have failed to close the gap on state aid, a key element barring their new agreement on post-Brexit trade ties, officials and diplomatic sources with the bloc said as 27 national leaders gather in Brussels on Thursday.