The EU on Thursday launched a legal case against Britain for failing to nominate a commissioner, in the midst of a British election campaign already dominated by Brexit.
The European Commission, the EU's executive arm "has today sent a letter of formal notice to the United Kingdom for breaching its EU treaty obligations by not suggesting a candidate for the post of EU Commissioner," a statement said.
Britain's departure from the bloc has been postponed from October 31 until January 31, so under EU rules it is supposed to put forward a candidate for the new commission led by Ursula von der Leyen.
Von der Leyen wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson asking him to nominate a commissioner but on Thursday Britain replied that its election rules meant it could not do so until after polling day on December 12.
"We have written to the EU to confirm that pre-election guidance states the UK should not normally make nominations for international appointments during this period," a UK official said.
The former German defence minister had hoped to head a 28-strong team of top officials -- one from each EU member state -- in time for her commission to take office on December 1.
The legal move, known in EU jargon as an infringement procedure, begins a long process involving several warnings that could eventually lead to Britain being sued at the EU's highest court to force compliance.
It is unclear how far or how vigorously the process will be pursued, but coming in the middle of the British election campaign, it risks accusations of interference.
British officials insist they do not want to hold up the formation of the new commission and are willing to cooperate to achieve this.
A European source suggested the legal proceedings may be a technical move to enable the new commission to take office without a British commissioner.
Von der Leyen's November 1 target date for taking office has already come and gone, after MEPs rejected her French, Hungarian and Romanian nominees.
Britain plans to leave the bloc on January 31 and Johnson is fighting an election campaign on a pro-Brexit ticket.
Thursday's announcement came less than 24 hours after outgoing EU Council President Donald Tusk gave implicit backing to Johnson's opponents, telling anti-Brexit campaigners to keep fighting.
"The only words that come to my mind today are simply: don't give up. In this match, we have had added time, now we are in extra time, perhaps it will even go to penalties?" Tusk said in a keynote speech to the College of Europe in Bruges.
Tusk, who has made no secret of his opposition to Britain leaving the bloc, also took aim at the imperialist fantasies of some Brexit supporters, saying the UK would be left a "second-rate player" after departure.
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