Boris Johnson faced renewed EU anger on Wednesday as he pressed ahead with a controversial bill to unstitch parts of Britain’s Brexit treaty, even though UK ministers have admitted it breaks international law.
Irish prime minister Micheál Martin said the bill, which would override a carefully crafted UK-EU deal on the future of Northern Ireland, would damage trust between the two sides as they tried to negotiate a new trade deal in time for the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31.
If approved by MPs, the bill, published at lunchtime on Wednesday, would allow Britain to unilaterally interpret the deal. It includes the crucial phrase “notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or domestic law”.
Speaking to MPs during prime minister’s questions, Mr Johnson defended the new bill. “My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK but also to protect the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,” he said. “And to do that, we need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol.”
Mr Martin said he agreed with Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, that it amounted to a “very serious development” and insisted he would raise his “strong concerns” with Mr Johnson in person.
The former prime minister John Major also issued a stinging rebuke, saying the move would damage the UK’s international standing.
“For generations, Britain’s word — solemnly given — has been accepted by friend and foe,” said Sir John. “Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct. If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”
Despite the growing anger, Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, arrived in London on Wednesday morning to try to unblock the stalled Brexit trade talks, which have foundered on disputes about fisheries and state aid policy.
Shortly after the publication of the internal market bill, Mr Johnson’s government published its plans “for a new approach to subsidy control”, seen as a sign that Downing Street was hoping to avoid a complete breakdown of talks this week.
The proposals were not expected to be published until next week, but were rushed out to coincide with the resumption of talks between Mr Barnier and his UK counterpart, David Frost.
However, the UK’s promise that it did “not intend to return to the 1970s approach of trying to run the economy or bailing out unsustainable companies” comes nowhere close to satisfying Brussels’ demand for a robust legal framework with independent enforcement mechanisms.
The UK is proposing it will simply operate under looser World Trade Organization subsidy rules.
Mr Barnier will review the new internal market bill and state aid proposals before reporting back to EU capitals at the end of the week.
Downing Street’s latest attempt to explain its breach of international law — that Mr Johnson did not fully understand what he was agreeing in his deal with the EU last October — is unlikely to impress fellow leaders.
“The treaty was written in a rush and was never meant to be the final agreed text between the UK and the EU,” Number 10 said.
“The withdrawal agreement and Northern Ireland protocol aren’t like any other treaty. It was agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances to deliver on a clear political decision of the British people and with the clear overriding purpose of protecting the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.”
The internal market bill would allow Britain to insist on no export paperwork for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain and to restrict the application of EU state aid rules in the case of Northern Ireland.
Ministers also want to take powers to decide which goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should be subject to EU tariffs — in other words, those goods “at risk” of moving across the open border into Ireland.
Maros Sefcovic, an EU commission vice-president, said he made clear Brussels’ consternation about the UK plans in a call on Tuesday evening with Michael Gove, UK cabinet office minister.
“I expressed our strong concerns and sought assurances that the UK will fully and timely comply with the withdrawal agreement including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland,” said Mr Sefcovic.
He called for an “extraordinary” meeting of the EU-UK joint committee chaired by himself and Mr Gove — set up to resolve disputes about the Northern Ireland protocol — “to be held as soon as possible”.
A UK government spokesperson said Mr Gove had explained to Mr Sefcovic that Britain was planning “limited and reasonable steps” and that it remained committed to implementing the protocol.
Additional reporting by Sebastian Payne in London and Arthur Beesley in Dublin