The row began when the UK government changed how the Northern Ireland Protocol is being implemented, without EU agreement, by delaying the introduction of new sea border checks on food, parcels and pets.
It also moved unilaterally to ease the trade in horticultural products across from the UK to the province.
The Commission has now sent a formal letter of notice to the UK saying these actions breach the substantive provisions of the Protocol as well as the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK is asked to respond within a month or risk further legal steps.
Šefčovič, who said the EU's preference is for “collaborative, pragmatic and constructive” political discussions, has also sent a “political letter “to David Frost, the UK’s co-chair of the Joint Committee, calling on the UK government to “rectify and refrain from putting into practice the statements and guidance” published on 3 March and 4 March.
The letter says, “these unilateral measures are a violation of the duty of good faith under Article 5 of the Withdrawal Agreement.”
The letter also calls on the UK to “enter into bilateral consultations in the Joint Committee in good faith, with the aim of reaching a mutually agreed solution by the end of this month.”
“We need to solve exiting problems within the framework of the Withdrawal Agreement. The unilateral UK decision to extend certain grace periods undermines this approach. The Commission’s legal steps are in accordance with the agreed framework” David McAllister, EPP
Šefčovič, the EU’s co-chair of the Joint Committee, said, “The Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is the only way to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement and to preserve peace and stability, while avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and maintaining the integrity of the EU single market. The EU and the UK agreed the Protocol together.”
He adds, “We are also bound to implement it together. Unilateral decisions and international law violations by the UK defeat its very purpose and undermine trust between us.”
“The UK must properly implement it if we are to achieve our objectives. That is why we are launching legal action. I do hope that through the collaborative, pragmatic and constructive spirit that has prevailed in our work so far on implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, we can solve these issues in the Joint Committee without recourse to further legal means.”
A UK government statement said it would respond “in due course” but described the UK’s actions as “temporary, operational steps” which were “lawful and part of a progressive and good faith implementation” of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
MEPs canvassed by this website for a reaction to the move backed the Commission, with German Greens MEP Terry Reintke saying, “The Commission is right to take legal action against breaches of the Withdrawal Agreement.”
“Agreeing on the Northern Ireland Protocol was a difficult task - for all sides. By threatening this balance, the UK government is threatening the basis of future cooperation.“
Belgian ECR member Geert Bourgeois told The Parliament Magazine, “I regret that, for the second time, the British are unilaterally violating the Withdrawal Agreement.”
“The Commission is right to take legal action against breaches of the Withdrawal Agreement. Agreeing on the Northern Ireland Protocol was a difficult task - for all sides. By threatening this balance, the UK government is threatening the basis of future cooperation” Terry Reintke, Greens/EFA
“I agree with the Commission's reaction, which is twofold: to start a formal procedure, but at the same time to look for a political solution. After all, I assume that these are practical implementation problems relating to customs control, digitalisation and rules of origin.”
He said he called on the UK government to “rectify and refrain from putting into practice the statements and guidances.”
“I call for a de-escalation, a pragmatic solution, and for the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to be ratified as soon as possible.”
German EPP MEP David McAllister, chair of Parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said, “The EU has continuously demonstrated a clear and unambiguous will to a pragmatic, solution driven approach to Northern Ireland. But this is subject to the UK respecting its obligations under the protocol.”
“We need to solve exiting problems within the framework of the Withdrawal Agreement. The unilateral UK decision to extend certain grace periods undermines this approach. The Commission’s legal steps are in accordance with the agreed framework.”
Irish Renew Europe member Barry Andrews also told this site, “The UK says it is lawful to unilaterally extend the grace periods – why then did it spend much of February negotiating extension with the EU?”
“Notwithstanding the clear breach of good faith, the stakes in Northern Ireland are very high and it is crucial that we continue dialogue on finding ways to deescalate tensions and to fully implement the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”
“I regret that, for the second time, the British are unilaterally violating the Withdrawal Agreement. I agree with the Commission’s reaction, which is twofold: to start a formal procedure, but at the same time to look for a political solution”
Geert Bourgeois, ECR
However, Jayne Adye, of the Get Britain Out group, was critical of the EU, telling this site, “The European Union’s decision to pursue legal proceedings against the UK is simply the latest in a long line of examples where the EU has no interest in acting in good faith, respecting the Good Friday Agreement or trying to achieve a mutually beneficial outcome for both sides.”
“The EU has used every opportunity to try and undermine the sovereignty of the UK and its legitimacy on the world stage, whether that is through fake news around the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine or this attempt to try and use the European Court of Justice to rule over the UK. Despite what the EU may attempt to tell the world, we are our own country now.”