How the EU’s lawyers could hit back at Boris Johnson’s ‘carpet-bombing’ of Brexit plans

The EU is considering legal action against the UK over Boris Johnson’s bid to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, a leaked Brussels document reveals.

European Commission lawyers write that the bloc may seek legal recourse that could result in fines or potential trade sanctions against Britain if emergency talks fail to quell fears that the Internal Market Bill will break previous commitments.

As Bloomberg reports, “the controversy is fuelling concern there may be no agreement by the year-end deadline” for a Brexit deal. 

What legal action can the EU take?

The Internal Markets Bill contains a number of clauses that effectively override parts of the Northern Ireland protocol found in the original withdrawal agreement signed last year.

The backtracking on the Brexit treaty has provoked anger in both Westminster and Brussels, with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen saying she was “very concerned” by the bill, which “breaks international law and undermines trust”.

According to the leaked document, which has been seen by news outlets including Bloomberg, the EU is “studying the possibility of legal action against the UK” over the alleged breaches.

The site’s European correspondent-at-large, Alberto Nardelli, says the the EU may have a case to “seek legal remedies under the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement” even before the Internal Market Bill is passed, and would have “clear justification once the bill becomes law”.

Lawyers for the bloc write that EU courts have the potential to “impose a lump sum or penalty payment” on the UK.

Brussels could also use the dispute settlement mechanism under the withdrawal agreement, “which may ultimately also result in the imposition of financial sanctions by the arbitration panel”, the document says.

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The lawyers “say it is unlikely a case could be launched before the end of the year”, the BBC reports. But legal action could be taken at the European Court of Justice or through the dispute settlement mechanism after the transition period ends on 31 December, the lawyers suggest.

And this could lead to “significant financial penalties”, as the EU believes the bill represents a “clear breach” of the withdrawal agreement.

What is the mood in Brussels?

Johnson’s decision to upend the withdrawal agreement has further soured the already fractious relationship between the UK and the EU. 

MEP Manfred Weber, head of the main center-right group in the European Parliament, has warned that “no-deal is becoming more likely every day”.

Emergency talks were taking place today between EU official Maros Sefcovic and UK Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, with the former expected to reiterate that the withdrawal agreement is not up for renegotiation.

Meanwhile, an EU official told Politico that the UK’s recent conduct was “shocking” and a “carpet-bombing”.

“It’s always hard to make a rational analysis of the moves of a populist government,” the official said. “But this can no longer be seen as a political strategy to build up to a compromise. It’s a clear intention to pave the way toward a no-deal.”

A senior EU diplomat added that “in four years of negotiations, this is the absolute low”.

Attacking UK ministers for attempting to “overrule not only international but also national law”, the diplomat said: “This is certainly not cricket. We still strive to come to an agreement within the limited time that remains as the basis for future relations but the chances of a successful outcome are now small.”

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Politicians from other parts of the globe have also condemned Johnson’s plans to renege on the treaty.

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has warned that there is “absolutely no chance” of the US signing a post-Brexit trade deal with the UK if the Northern Ireland peace process is jeopardised.


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