The UK government has rejected EU demands to scrap draft legislation that Brussels deems a “clear breach” of the Brexit withdrawal deal.
The EU’s demand – accompanied by a threat of legal action and a suggestion Brexit trade talks could be halted if the UK does not back down – followed emergency talks between senior EU and UK figures on Thursday.
But senior cabinet minister Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, vowed the UK “would not and could not” agree to the EU’s request to drop the legislation.
The stand-off over the Withdrawal Agreement has cast fresh tensions over the relationship between Brussels and London, with trade talks over a future EU-UK relationship continuing to remain deadlocked.
Following an eighth round of negotiations this week, both the EU and UK chief negotiators admitted “significant” differences remain in key areas.
The UK Internal Market Bill, published by the government on Wednesday, seeks to alter key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with Brussels earlier this year.
The proposed law has whipped up a storm of anger both from the EU and at home – including from leading Conservatives.
Amid the row, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic travelled to London on Thursday to meet with Mr Gove.
Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove that if the legislation were to be passed “it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law”.
He added that by putting forward the bill, which was published on Wednesday, the UK had seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK.
“It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust,” the European Commission said in a statement after the meeting.
The European Commission also rejected claims that the bill is designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland.
“In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” the statement added.
Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove that the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement – including its provisions for the Irish border – was a “legal obligation” and that the EU “expects the letter and spirit of this agreement to be fully respected”.
Violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would “break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations” on a UK-EU trade deal, Mr Sefcovic added.
He also warned the EU “will not be shy” in using “a number of mechanisms and legal remedies” that are contained in the Withdrawal Agreement to address violations.
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney thanked Mr Sefcovic for his “important statement”.
But Mr Gove later revealed he had made it “perfectly clear” to Mr Sefcovic that, while the UK government is “committed to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement”, it “could not and would not” scrap the bill.
“This legislation is critical to ensuring that there is unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.
Ahead of a planned parliamentary vote on the legislation next week – during which some Tory MPs have vowed to rebel against the government – Mr Gove expressed his hope that “across the House of Commons there will be a recognition that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland in order to make sure that they continue to have unfettered access”.
Mr Gove added that the government also had a duty to ensure the Northern Ireland Protocol – which forms part of the Withdrawal Agreement – was “implemented in a way that makes sure the gains of the Good Friday Agreement are absolutely secured and enhanced in the future”.
The meeting between Mr Sefcovic and Mr Gove took place at the same time as EU and UK officials were concluding the eighth round of negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, which have so far made little progress.
Without a trade deal by the end of this year – when the Brexit transition period ends – the UK will likely have to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms from next year.
Following the latest round of talks in London, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier said that “significant differences” remain between the two sides.
He accused the UK of “refusing to include indispensable guarantees of fair competition in our future agreement, while requesting free access to our market”.
“To conclude a future partnership, mutual trust and confidence are and will be necessary,” Mr Barnier added, as he noted the EU was “intensifying its preparedness work” ahead of a possible no-deal outcome at the end of the year.
The UK’s chief negotiator, Lord Frost, said this week’s talks had seen “useful exchanges” but added “a number of challenging areas remain and the divergences on some are still significant”.
“We have engaged in discussions in all areas,” he added.
“We have consistently made proposals which provide for open and fair competition, on the basis of high standards, in a way which is appropriate to a modern free trade agreement between sovereign and autonomous equals.”
The two sides will meet in Brussels next week to continue talks, with Lord Frost saying he was “working hard” to reach a deal by the middle of next month.
The pound has been under pressure amid the latest tensions over Brexit and on Thursday dipped to its lowest level against the euro since March, at just over €1.08.
It also slipped against the dollar, dipping below $1.29.
In tabling the UK Internal Market Bill, the government has admitted the proposed legislation does break international law in a “very specific and limited way”.
Senior Conservatives – including three former Tory leaders – have criticised the plans.
Earlier on Thursday, Lord Michael Howard accused the government of damaging the UK’s “reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law”.
“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he told the House of Lords.
Senior Tory MP Sir Roger Gale indicated he is ready to lose the Conservative whip in order to vote against the bill next week.
“I shall do what I have to do on the basis of principle,” he told Sky News.
“And the principle is that this United Kingdom keeps its word internationally.”
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, when the pair met to discuss Iran on Thursday, that a breach by the UK of the Withdrawal Agreement would be “unacceptable”.
Rachel Reeves, Labour’s shadow Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said: “The government promised the British people they would deliver their ‘oven-ready’ deal.
“But just months later they are seeking to undo it, squandering valuable time and losing focus during a pandemic.
“A deal must be reached as a priority so that the government can then get a grip on tackling the coronavirus and protecting jobs, businesses and communities.”
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