Relations between Downing Street and Brussels hit a new low as the Prime Minister refused to drop his bid to rip up part of his Brexit divorce pact. At a bad-tempered London meeting yesterday, a brazen Eurocrat tried to give Michael Gove an ultimatum. The Cabinet Office Minister was told Britain has three months to ensure the proposed new legislation is ditched or face legal action. But Mr Gove hit back by firmly rejecting the demand.
The eighth round of Brexit trade negotiations broke up last night with both sides admitting major sticking points still remain in the wrangle over a trade deal.
Irate exchanges followed growing EU anger at Mr Johnson’s Internal Market Bill, which could overwrite part of the divorce arrangements he agreed with the bloc last year.
EU Vice President Maros Sefcovic demanded an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee, set up to monitor the divorce deal, to raise Brussels’ concerns.
In a stinging statement after yesterday’s meeting he said he had told Mr Gove “in no uncertain terms” that the Withdrawal Agreement was a legal obligation. The statement said: “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.”
The statement said Mr Sefcovic told the Government to withdraw the measures from the draft Bill “in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month”.
It added: “By putting forward this Bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK Government to re-establish that trust.”
Mr Sefcovic warned the EU “will not be shy” in using “mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text”.
But Mr Gove refused to cave in and said: “I explained to Vice President Sefcovic that we could not and would not do that.
“I made it perfectly clear…that we would not be withdrawing this legislation. He understood that. Of course he regretted it.”
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier blamed the UK for the stalemate, saying: “On its side, the UK has not engaged in a reciprocal way on fundamental EU principles and interests. Significant differences remain in areas of essential interest for the EU.
“The UK is refusing to include indispensable guarantees of fair competition in our future agreement, while requesting free access to our market.” Mr Barnier also claimed Britain “had not engaged” in trying to resolve fishing rights and business regulations disputes.
He said the EU was stepping up emergency plans for a no-deal Brexit – and in a swipe at UK negotiators added: “To conclude a future partnership, mutual trust and confidence are and will be necessary.” Tory peer David Frost, who leads the British negotiating team, said: “We have been consistently clear from the start of this process about the basis on which agreement is possible between us.Those fundamentals remain.
“We have engaged in discussions in all areas. 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.” He said the UK was committed to working hard to reach agreement by the middle of October.
Sources close to the talks said there were constructive discussions on issues including road haulage, social security, and energy but big differences remained over fishing and regulation.
UK negotiators continue to insist Britain will take full control of its fishing waters at the end of the year.
Brexiteer Tory MP Sir Bernard Jenkin insisted yesterday that the Internal Market Bill would not break international law.
In an article for the ConservativeHome website, Sir Bernard said Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had been “factually incorrect” in telling MPs the legislation could break treaty obligations. The MP wrote: “This may be good tough talk but it does not engender respect. Who told him to say that? His exact words are not even factually correct. The key clauses themselves create no breach with EU law.”
Sir Bernard added: “What might be construed as a minor breach of some highly technical provisions of an international agreement does not mean a breach of ‘the law’ as it is understood under our constitution.
“Trade agreements in particular are frequently disputed. No selfrespecting sovereign state would allow a foreign power the sole right to determine how to interpret and to enforce a bilateral treaty.
“Parliament has the inalienable right to enact laws to defend our national interests.”
A spokesman for the Government said: “The measures set out in the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill are designed to create a ‘safety net’ that ensures ministers can always deliver on their obligations and take steps to best ensure the prosperity and protect the enormous progress the people of Northern Ireland have made in recent decades.”
The spokesman added: “The UK Government underlined its determination to continue to engage in Joint Committee discussions with the aim of finding a satisfactory outcome for both sides.”