BRUSSELS — The European Commission said it would freeze two separate lawsuits against the U.K. “at this stage” as it wants to “continue constructive discussions” with London over trade arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Brussels launched a twin-track legal action against London in March after the British government unilaterally delayed the introduction of post-Brexit checks for certain goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The dispute relates to the Protocol on Northern Ireland, part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement agreed by the two sides in 2019. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said last week that the protocol is “unsustainable” and called for a renegotiation — an appeal that Commission President Ursula von der Leyen immediately rejected.
However, while maintaining the protocol was not up for renegotiation, a Commission spokesperson said Wednesday that Brussels remained open to suggestions made in a British command paper published last week and “would consider any proposals that respect the principles of the protocol.” In that sense, the EU would comply with a British request for a “standstill” on the legal actions against London.
“It is essential that we continue constructive discussions in the weeks ahead,” the spokesperson said. “With regards to the request for a standstill, the Commission will carefully assess the new proposals made by the U.K., in accordance with the necessary consultation procedures, both internally, and with the European Parliament.”
The spokesperson added that, “in order to provide the necessary space to reflect on these issues and find durable solutions to the implementation of the Protocol, we have decided, at this stage, not to move to the next stage of the infringement procedure, started in March.”
The infringement procedure is one of the two legal actions that Brussels launched against the U.K. in March. The spokesperson said that the Commission would also pause a second legal action allowed under the Withdrawal Agreement that, if pursued, would have “lead to a dispute settlement process.” Both legal procedures, if pursued to the end of the process, could lead to the imposition of EU tariffs on British products.
A U.K. government spokesperson confirmed that London “received a constructive reply from the Commission in response to our request for a standstill on existing arrangements,” and added: “We look forward to engaging in talks with the EU in the weeks ahead to progress the proposals in our command paper. As we set out in the Command Paper last week, significant changes are needed to ensure the Protocol is sustainable for future.”
In Dublin, an Irish government spokesperson welcomed the Commission’s move as “a genuine goodwill gesture.”
“While the Commission was correct to take its legal action given the unilateral British moves to avoid or delay implementing parts of the protocol, it is also welcome for the Commission to create more space now for constructive negotiations in advance of the expiry of extended grace periods due to expire at the end of September. That’s only nine weeks away. The Commission move doesn’t create any more time in what is a difficult deadline for progress. However it should, reasonably, improve the backdrop for these vital talks.”