EU launches legal case against Britain over Northern Ireland

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union launched legal action against Britain on Monday for unilaterally changing trading arrangements for Northern Ireland that Brussels says breach the Brexit divorce deal agreed with London last year.

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The bloc has sent a letter of formal notice to kick-start an “infringement procedure”, which could lead to fines being imposed by the EU’s top court, although that could be at least a year off, leaving time for a solution to be found.

Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU leaves the British-ruled province of Northern Ireland in the EU single market for goods and so requires checks on goods arriving there from other parts of the United Kingdom.

Some of those checks are meant to start when a grace period expires at the end of March. The plans have already disrupted some supplies reaching supermarkets in Northern Ireland.

Britain says it intends to extend the grace period unilaterally until Oct. 1, a decision the EU letter demands it reverses.

Britain said it has not violated the agreement and that it would reply to the EU’s legal action “in due course”.

The United States called on both sides to preserve the Good Friday accord protecting peace in Northern Ireland, with the White House urging them to “prioritize pragmatic solutions”.

Maros Sefcovic, the top EU official in charge of UK relations, has also sent a separate letter to British counterpart David Frost, seeking talks in good faith to resolve the issue this month.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said on Monday the extension was simply a technical decision aimed at being fair. The protocol, he said, should guarantee trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, as well as across Northern Ireland’s land border with Ireland.

“That’s all we’re trying to sort out with some temporary and technical measures which we think are very sensible, but obviously we’ll look forward to our discussions with our EU friends and see where we get to,” he said.

Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop in Brussels, Alistair Smout, Guy Faulconbridge and Kate Holton in London, Jeff Mason in Washington; Editing by Gabriela Baczynska, Peter Graff and Alexander Smith