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Brussels pauses legal action against UK over Brexit deal breach

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Brussels has paused legal action against the UK government in an attempt to de-escalate tensions over customs rules on goods entering Northern Ireland. 

The European Commission said on Tuesday that it would freeze an infringement process triggered in March over the UK’s breaching of the terms of the post-Brexit Northern Ireland protocol, which requires checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK mainland. 

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Brussels’ decision to pause legal action comes amid rising EU-UK tensions over rules designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

The British government last week demanded the removal of the role of the EU’s highest court in interpreting the protocol as part of a wholesale overhaul of the treaty agreed between the two sides in 2019.

The UK has argued the customs checks are causing trade frictions and societal instability for businesses and citizens in Northern Ireland. “We cannot go on as we are, Lord David Frost, the EU minister, told the UK parliament last week. 

Brussels has firmly rejected a renegotiation of the protocol but has opted to put the infringement process on hold to avoid inflaming tensions with London. 

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The commission said the pause would help “provide the necessary space to reflect on these issues and find durable solutions to the implementation of the protocol”. 

An EU diplomat said the decision was designed to prevent a further deterioration in relations before a series of grace periods on checks for goods entering Northern Ireland are due to expire in September. 

The commission has told EU diplomats that the UK continues to threaten to use a mechanism under the Brexit withdrawal treaty, known as Article 16, that allows either side unilaterally to suspend checks on goods if it deems them to be causing serious economic and social harm in the region. 

Frost said last week that the government had stepped back from triggering Article 16 after previously saying it would consider “all options”. 

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“Anything could provide Frost the match he seeks to light the fire — including the infringement process,” said an EU diplomat. 

The UK’s “command paper” sets out a series of demands such as removing the role of the European Court of Justice, a suspension of customs checks on goods where businesses can ensure the end destination is Northern Ireland rather than the EU’s single market, and an overhaul of a state-aid subsidy regime. 

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Brussels has balked at the demands and chided the UK for reneging on an internationally binding agreement struck with Boris Johnson’s government that has only been in force since the start of the year.

The commission has told EU diplomats that the UK’s demands for a dual regulatory regime to operate in Northern Ireland and the removal of the role of the ECJ are non-starters. An EU official said the British demands to forgo customs checks “requires trust, and all trust has gone”.

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