The UK Says It's Making "Minor Clarifications" To The Brexit Deal, As The EU Says Any Changes Risk Peace In Northern Ireland
Boris Johnson says the UK and the EU must make progress in talks this week or face a no deal Brexit (PA)
The UK government has claimed it is only making “minor clarifications in extremely specific areas” to the Withdrawal Agreement, after the EU accused it of trying to tear up the existing Brexit deal and in the process threaten peace in Northern Ireland.
An official said the government is “completely committed, as it always has been, to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in good faith” as part of attempts to quell the latest row between Britain and Brussels as negotiations reach their final stage.
This morning the Financial Times reported that a new Internal Market Bill was set to be published this week which would "eliminate the legal force of parts of the Withdrawal Agreement” and allow UK ministers to take charge of customs issues on the Irish border – despite potentially being in breach of international law.
But the UK official told reporters the steps had to be taken, otherwise “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.”
They added: “We are making minor clarifications in extremely specific areas to ensure that, as we implement the protocol, we are doing so in a way that allows ministers to always uphold and protect the Good Friday peace agreement.”
The Internal Market Bill is set to allow the Westminster government to decide which goods traded from Britain to Northern Ireland are deemed “at risk” of then entering the EU, and therefore being subject to tariffs.
It will also waive export summary declarations on goods heading in either direction, and make changes to the way the EU’s state aid rules would apply in Northern Ireland.
A spokesperson for No10 said: “We will continue to work with the EU in the Joint Committee to resolve outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
"However, as a responsible Government, we cannot allow the peace process or the UK’s internal market to inadvertently be compromised by unintended consequences of the protocol.
"The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed as a way of implementing the needs of our exit from the EU in a way that worked for Northern Ireland and in particular for maintaining the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, the gains of the Peace Process, and the delicate balance between both communities’ interests.”
They added: “So we are taking limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol in domestic law to remove any ambiguity and to ensure the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.
“These limited clarifications deliver on the commitments the Government made in the General Election manifesto, which said 'we will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market’.
"This was reiterated in the Command Paper published in May.”
But the president of the EU commission, Ursula von der Leyen, warned the UK must adhere to the Withdrawal Agreement in full.
She tweeted: “I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and a prerequisite for any future partnership. Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island and integrity of the single market.”
And the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier told French radio that honouring the existing protocol was "a pre-condition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected”.
His spokesman suggested he would walk away from the talks if the UK didn't live up to its commitments, while Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said abandoning the agreement would be "a very unwise way to proceed”.
But a spokesman for the Prime Minister confirmed: “We are fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
It comes after Mr Johnson told European leaders progress must be made in this week’s eighth round of Brexit talks or the Brexit negotiations are heading for no deal.
The spokesman added: "He is clear that we need to make progress this week.
"We can't be in the same position as we are now by the end of the upcoming negotiating round if we are going to reach an agreement in the time available.
"As the PM is setting out today, there needs to be an agreement by the time of the European Council on October 15 if it is going to be in force by the end of the year.
"Reaching a deal at the eleventh hour is not an option."
Mr Johnson has also spoken to the French president Emmanuel Macron on Monday morning, where they discussed Brexit alongside the “shared challenge of illegal small boat crossings” between the two countries.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “On the negotiations to reach a trade deal with the European Union, the Prime Minister and President Macron agreed on the importance of making progress this month and reaching a conclusion on talks quickly.”