Johnson faces anger over Brexit deal plans
●Prime Minister defends Withdrawal Act changes amid warnings from EU
D owning Street has denied new laws that could change post-brexit customs arrangements with the EU would tear up the existing Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK government is planning legislation that could override key aspects of the treaty signed in 2019 on the terms of the UK’S exit from the EU and future trade in Northern Ireland.
No 10 said it would only make “minor clarifications in extremely specific areas” in the Internal Market Bill when it is tabled tomorrow.
But the EU said the “full implementation” of the Withdrawal Agreement was a“prerequisite for then egotiations on the future partnership” between the bloc and the UK.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the move risked collapsing trade talks with the EU and branded Conservative ministers “charlatans”.
And the Scottish Government’s constitution minister, Michael Russell, said the UK is “hurtling” towards a no-deal Brexit.
As part of the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the region is expected to continue to follow some EU rules after the transition period ends in 2021 to ensure there is no hard border – which is unpopular with some Tory backbenchers and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party.
No 10 has said it is committed to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol, but wants to have something in place to protect trade across the four nations of the UK if an agreement is not reached by the deadline of the end of the year.
The Internal Market Bill is intended to ensure goods from Nor thern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid rules – which will continue to apply in Nor thern Ireland – will not apply in the rest of the UK.
In addition, an amendment to the
Finance Bill will give ministers the power to designate which goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are considered “at risk” of entering the EU single market and are therefore liable to EU tariffs.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s spokesman said discussions were continuing with the EU to resolve the outstanding issues relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border with the Republic once the transition is over.
He said the legislative changes were a necessary“safety net” in the event that they were unable to come to an agree - ment.
A UK official added: “If we don’t take these steps we face the prospect of legal confusion at the end of the year and potentially extremely damaging defaults, including tariffs on goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland.”
However, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be no backtracking by the UK on its previous commitments if it wanted to reach a free trade agreement.
“I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership,” she said.
“[The] protocol on IrelandNorthern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island and integrity of the single market.”
The EU’S chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said he would be seeking clarification about the UK’S plans.
He told French radio that honouring the Withdrawal Agreement was “a pre-condition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected”.
Mr Johnson and French president Emmanuel Macron “agreed on the importance of making progress this month and reaching a conclusion on talks quickly” during a call on Monday, Downing Street said.
Mr Macron tweeted that it had been a “very good discussion”.
Ahead of a fresh round of Brexit talks with the EU starting today, Mr Johnson heaped further pressure on negotiators by saying that if a deal is not agreed by 15 October, the date of the next European Council, then no deal would be inevitable.
He said: “If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.
“There is still an agreement to be had. We will continue to work hard in September to achieve it. It is one based on our reasonable proposal for a standard free trade agreement like the one the EU has agreed with Canada and so many others.
“Even at this late stage, if the EU are ready to rethink their current positions and agree this I will be delighted. But we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an inde - pendent country to get it.”
In response to reports of the UK government’s plans, Ms Sturgeon tweeted :“If true, this means repudiation by UK govt of a Treat y freely negotiated by it, and described by the Prime Minister as an ‘oven ready’ deal.
“This will significantly increase likelihood of no deal, and the resulting damage to the economy will be entirely Tor y inflicted. What charlatans.”
Mr Russell said :“The UK government is now hurtling towards a disastrous Brexit outcome in the midst of a deep recession and global pandemic.”
He added that the Scottish Government will oppose the bill “at every turn” and warned it would “consolidate opposition” against the UK government’s plans and “alienate” the EU.
He said: “With the likely publication of the Internal Market Bill this week, designed to allow bad trade deals to be imposed no matter the view of the Scottish people, we will see confirmed the biggest assault on devolution since the Scottish Parliament was es tablished.
“We will, as we have made clear, oppose it at ever y turn. In addition, reports that the UK government is now also planning to use this legislation to renege on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement which they willingly entered into just nine months ago, are extraordinary and will not only consolidate opposition across these islands but will also alienate the European Union, further increasing the likelihood of the current talks collapsing.”
Ireland’ s foreign minister Simon Coveney tweeted: “This would be a very unwise way to proceed.”
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said: “It beggars belief that the government is–yet again–playin ga dangerous game in Northern Ireland and sacrificing our international standing at the altar of the Prime Minister’s incompetence.”
“It beggars belief that the government is sacrificing our international standing at the altar of the Prime Minister’s incompetence” LOUISE HAIGH
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary
International diplomacy will often see the deployment of skills normally used to win at cards. So whether a new UK government bill will “override” the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, as sources had suggested, or just “remove ambiguity” with some “limited and reasonable steps”, as Downing Street insisted amid mounting concern in Europe about the reports, is hard to tell. Somebody is bluffing.
One thing, however, is fairly clear. When trying to negotiate a deal with a business partner, if you suddenly suggest you may go back on a previous deal, they might start to question whether you will stick to the proposed agreement.
“Concern” is probably a mild way of describing the reaction from some quarters to reports about the UK Internal Market Bill. Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’neill said any backtracking on the Withdrawal Agreement would be a “treacherous betrayal which would inflict irreversible harm on the all-ireland economy and the Good Friday Agreement”. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, was less inflammatory but the message was similar. She pointed out the Withdrawal Agreement was “an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership”, adding that the parts concerning Northern Ireland were essential to “protect peace” and also to the “integrity of the single market”.
Other countries, particularly those involved in trade negotiations with the UK, may be also interested to read the fine detail of the bill, to be published tomorrow, to check whether the changes are just minor housekeeping or whether Brexit Britain really is beginning its new life by going back on its word and ruining its good name.
There is the possibility that the bill is a rather dramatic card in the poker game with Brussels, one designed to somehow talk them into agreeing to a better deal than the UK might get otherwise. But others, including Nicola Sturgeon, suspected it would only make a no-deal Brexit more likely.
Indeed, it may be the UK is not playing a game designed to secure a deal at all, but rather one in which victory is defined as successfully shifting the blame on to the EU for the catastrophic economic damage a no-deal would cause.
If so, it is a game they cannot win. If the worst happens, the public will know who is truly to blame.