Britain stands on the brink of a no-deal Brexit after Boris Johnson’s government rejected an ultimatum from Brussels to ditch its plans to break international law.
In a brutal assault on the prime minister’s plans to override elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said Johnson’s move had “seriously damaged trust” and endangered peace in Northern Ireland. He set a 20-day deadline for him to back down or face legal action.
With the latest round of talks on a post-Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU ended in London with no sign of progress, chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Brussels was “intensifying preparations” for a disruptive no-deal outcome when the transition process ends on 31 December.
Talks will resume in Brussels next week, but Mr Barnier said the UK had failed to “engage” on key issues where “significant differences” remain between the two sides, such as state aid, fisheries and a level playing field on standards.
Crucially he confirmed that “uncertainties” about animal health and sanitation standards in Great Britain after the UK stops observing EU rules on 1 January meant Brussels was not in a position to confirm “third party” status guaranteeing the right to export food products into the European customs area.
Possible withholding of the designation lies at the heart of Mr Johnson’s attempt to tear up the supposedly “oven-ready deal” which he signed and forced through parliament less than a year ago, as ministers fear it could block exports of food from the British mainland to Northern Ireland, which remains under EU customs rules.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard and ex-chancellor Norman Lamont joined a lengthening list of party grandees to condemn Mr Johnson’s high-wire gambit, following outrage from Sir John Major, Theresa May and Lord Heseltine over proposals which ministers admit will breach international law.
Michael Gove says UK will not comply with EU demand to withdraw legislation
Lord Howard told the House of Lords that the UK would forfeit its right to reproach Russia, China or Iran for misconduct if it showed “such scant regard for our treaty obligations”, while Lord Lamont said: “The government are in a terrible mess and in a hole and I don’t think it is easy to justify.” Crucially, both are firm Eurosceptics who backed the campaign to Leave the EU in 2016.
With Mr Johnson’s UK internal market bill facing likely defeat in the Lords, there were growing signs of a Tory backbench rebellion at its second reading in the Commons next week, as the government attempts to force it through in just five days in the hope of making it law by the end of the year.
The bill would allow UK ministers to unilaterally waive export controls and tariffs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain and withhold information on state aid from Brussels in breach of Mr Johnson’s withdrawal agreement.
Veteran Tory backbencher Sir Roger Gale vowed to vote against the bill “on the basis of the principle that this United Kingdom keeps its word internationally”, adding: “I would not be surprised if other people do the same thing.”
And former minister Sir Bob Neill said he has significant support for an amendment to establish a parliamentary lock on government changes to the withdrawal agreement.
“We are not natural rebels. We’ve all served as ministers, we know that this is a serious job, and we do our best to take the job seriously,” he said. “So we don’t do anything like this lightly. So I hope it’s at least an indication as a government that really, you need to think very hard and carefully about going down this route. For heaven’s sake, try and find some other way.”
In an emergency meeting with cabinet minister Michael Gove in London, Mr Sefcovic left no doubt that Brussels would not allow itself to be painted as the villain if talks fail over the issue.
“By putting forward this bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK,” he said. “It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust.”
He gave Mr Johnson until the end of September to withdraw the offending measures from the legislation, which he said amounted to an “extremely serious violation” of the terms of the withdrawal agreement which would “break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations”.
In a statement following the talks, the European Commission said it would “not be shy” in taking legal action at the European Court of Justice, with potentially significant financial penalties for the UK if Mr Johnson sticks to his guns.
But there was a defiant response from Mr Gove, who said he had made it “perfectly clear” to Mr Sefcovic that “we would not be withdrawing this legislation”.
He brushed off the prospect of rebellion, saying he was “looking forward” to next week’s debate and urging Labour to back the government.
“This legislation is critical to ensuring that there is unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom,” said Mr Gove. We’re a unionist party, the Labour Party is as well. So therefore, I hope that across the House of Commons, there’ll be a recognition that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland in order to make sure that they can continue to have unfettered access.”
Mr Sefcovic flatly rejected London’s argument that its proposed changes were necessary as a “safety net” to prevent ambiguities in the agreement text from inflicting unintended damage on Northern Ireland and putting the peace process at risk.
“The EU does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft bill is to protect the Good Friday Agreement. In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” said the commission in a statement.
At the start of the week, both Mr Johnson and Lord Frost cast the eighth round of negotiations as a critical moment to make a breakthrough in the stalled trade talks, calling on Brussels to show “realism” to reach a deal by the PM’s self-imposed deadline of 15 October.
But following three days of discussions in London, Mr Barnier said: “Significant differences remain in areas of essential interest for the EU.”
He said the UK continued to refuse “indispensable” guarantees on fair competition and social, environmental, labour and climate standards in return for access to the European single market.
He also said the British side had “not engaged on other major issues, such as credible horizontal dispute settlement mechanisms, essential safeguards for judicial cooperation and law enforcement, fisheries, or level playing field requirements in the areas of transport and energy.”
Lord Frost said the exchanges had been “useful”, but added: “A number of challenging areas remain and the divergences on some are still significant.
“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.
“We remain committed to working hard to reach agreement by the middle of October, as the prime minister set out earlier this week.”
Attorney general Suella Braverman, a staunch Brexiteer, issued a defence of the internal market bill, which she said “ensures that the government will be able to deliver its commitments to protect peace in Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement”.
But her legal position paper was dismissed as “utterly risible” by a senior legal academic after she argued that that parliament is “sovereign in domestic law and can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK’s treaty obligations”.
Under the bill’s provisions, UK ministers will be able to take measures “notwithstanding any international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”, said Ms Braverman.
The chair of the faculty of law at the University of Cambridge, Professor Mark Elliott, said the attorney general’s presentation of the issue was “flatly incorrect”, stating: “The UK may have left the EU, but it has not left the community of nations or the rules-based international order.
“Treaty obligations are binding upon the UK, and to suggest that they are not ‘because parliament is sovereign’ is as embarrassing as it is dangerous.”
Ms Braverman’s Labour shadow Lord Falconer said: “The attorney general offers no justification whatsoever for the UK acting in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol and there is no justification for breaking the terms of that agreement.
“This advice does not address the issue of a breach of international law. The attorney general has conspicuously failed in her duty to uphold the rule of law in this country.”
Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson Christine Jardine said: “No one can really be surprised that the measures the UK government have brought forward have put the likelihood of a trade deal in jeopardy.
“This proposal undermines trust and the UK’s standing on the world stage.”