EU begins legal action over U.K. Brexit plan

By Stephen Castle and Steven Erlanger

The European Commission announced Thursday that it was pressing ahead with legal action against Britain over Brexit legislation that the government in London has said would permit it to break international law.

The commission, the European Union’s administrative arm, gave Britain an ultimatum last month, threatening to take it to court unless it dropped plans to override parts of an agreement on withdrawal from the bloc that Prime Minister Boris Johnson struck last year.

With the deadline having expired, the commission said in a statement that it had sent the British government “a letter of formal notice for breaching its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Britain has 30 days to respond, and any legal action could take months to unfold. That gives the two sides the opportunity to resolve their standoff if they can strike a deal in wider Brexit talks on a trade agreement.

At the heart of the dispute are parts of the withdrawal agreement designed to prevent the creation of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union. There are currently no border controls between the two, allowing for the free movement of goods and people.

Sections of a proposed law being considered by the British Parliament, known as the United Kingdom internal market bill, would override that withdrawal agreement by allowing British ministers to take key decisions on Northern Irish trade unilaterally, rather than through a process involving Brussels.

Despite Thursday’s move, talks on a trade agreement between Britain and the European Union are still underway. If those are successful, they could resolve many of the points at the center of the legal action and pave the way for a compromise.

The standoff comes less than 100 days before Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union’s trade zone. Britain formally quit the bloc Jan. 31 but remains under its economic rule book until the end of this year.

Maros Sefcovic, a vice president of the European Commission, warned this week that Brussels would not hesitate to use legal remedies in the withdrawal agreement against Britain if it refused to drop the contentious legislation.

On Thursday, the commission’s president, Ursula von der Leyen, said that Britain’s legislation was a “full contradiction” of previous commitments over how a hard border in Ireland should be avoided.

The British government said it would respond later to the EU move.

“We have clearly set out our reasons for introducing the measures,” it said in a statement.

“We need to create a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the U.K.’s internal market, ensure ministers can always deliver on their obligations to Northern Ireland and protect the gains from the peace process.”