Maros Sefcovic, Brussels’ lead representative on the joint committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement, said the British move had ‘seriously damaged trust’ between the UK and EU
Maros Sefcovic, Brussels’ lead representative on the joint committee overseeing the withdrawal agreement, said the British move had ‘seriously damaged trust’ between the UK and EU © Tolga Akmen/AFP

Brussels has issued Boris Johnson with an ultimatum to scrap his plans to override the UK’s Brexit treaty by the end of the month, warning the move had “seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK”.

In a sharp escalation of tensions, which threaten the future of trade talks between the two sides, the European Commission on Thursday threatened legal action unless the British prime minister withdrew controversial clauses in the UK’s internal market bill.

Michael Gove, Cabinet Office minister, insisted the government “could not and would not” withdraw the bill, which would allow the UK to ignore parts of the Brexit agreement dealing with Northern Ireland.

Mr Johnson’s hardball Brexit tactics were condemned not just by Brussels but by leading Conservatives, amid signs the bill would be savaged by some Tory MPs and peers when it is put before parliament.

Michael Howard, the Eurosceptic former Tory leader, told the House of Lords that the bill would “damage” Britain’s reputation, while former Tory chancellor Lord Lamont said the government was in “a terrible mess”.

Some Tory MPs are expected to rebel when the bill reaches the Commons on Monday, a prelude to what are likely to be major constitutional clashes with senior Conservative peers in the upper house.

Mr Gove insisted the plans were essential to guaranteeing the free flow of trade from Northern Ireland to Great Britain. Behind the scenes, some Tory officials were discussing whether the bill could be amended to avert a confrontation with parliament and Brussels.

EU diplomats underlined that Brussels had no intention of immediately shutting the future-relationship talks, saying it would amount to falling into a trap set by the UK. 

David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, said the two sides would meet as planned for further talks in Brussels next week, but EU officials said the eighth round of talks had made little progress.

“If the UK wants a no-deal, it should just say so,” said one diplomat. “We are working calmly and patiently towards a deal.”

The public statements came as the latest round of trade talks wound up in London and followed an emergency meeting of the joint EU-UK committee that oversees the Brexit deal agreed last year.

Brussels called for the meeting after the UK government’s shock decision to break international law by using parliament to override parts of the protocol on Northern Ireland enshrined in the UK’s withdrawal agreement.

The protocol solved the long-running stalemate between the two sides over how to prevent a hard trade border on the island of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland close to the EU customs union at the same time as being in the UK’s customs territory.

Maros Sefcovic, the EU’s lead representative on the joint committee, laid bare Brussels’ deep concerns about the violation of the Northern Ireland protocol, warning that the future of trade talks with the UK was at stake. 

Mr Sefcovic called on the UK government to “withdraw these measures from the draft bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month”. 

He stated the move had “seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK”. The commission’s statement added that it was now “up to the UK government to re-establish that trust”.

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, said the EU “remains committed to an ambitious future partnership with the UK”, while complaining that Britain “has not engaged in a reciprocal way on fundamental EU principles and interests”.

Brussels dismissed arguments put forward by UK ministers that the legislative plans were a necessary safeguard to preserve the peace process in Northern Ireland.

“The EU does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft bill is to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement,” the commission said. “In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite.”

The commission also said the UK faced legal action if it failed to comply, adding that Mr Sefcovic “reminded the UK government that the withdrawal agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text — which the European Union will not be shy in using”.

An internal EU commission analysis paper, seen by the Financial Times, warned that, even by just putting forward the bill, Britain was “in violation of the good faith obligation” enshrined in its Brexit treaty.

The commission paper runs through Brussels’ options for action under the treaty, including hauling the country before the European Court of Justice or launching an arbitration process — either of which could end in fines.

The UK bill would hand ministers powers to intervene on matters including the application of EU state-aid rules in Northern Ireland and the need for export declarations on goods shipped from the region to Great Britain.

But EU officials countered that the measures would ride roughshod over clear undertakings in the treaty, undermining a painstakingly constructed agreement intended to keep trade flowing on the island of Ireland no matter what happened in future EU-UK negotiations.

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