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The EU Has Told The UK To Ditch Its Withdrawal Agreement Changes By The End Of The Month Or It'll End The Brexit Talks

European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefcovic told Michael Gove the bill 'would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law' (PA)

5 min read

The EU has reacted with fury to the UK’s proposed changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and said if they are not ditched they will end the Brexit talks altogether.

They have demanded parts of the Internal Market bill be scrapped “by the end of the month” or they will begin legal action, saying the row “has seriously damaged trust” between the two sides.

After the government’s plans reached Brussels they called for “an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee”, which was held in London this afternoon between the European Commission’s vice-president Maroš Šefčovič and Michael Gove, the Cabinet minister leading on Brexit.

Mr Gove had sought to reassure the EU about the legislation, but in a statement they said Mr Šefčovič stated “in no uncertain terms that the timely and full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland – which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government agreed to, and which the UK Houses of Parliament ratified, less than a year ago – is a legal obligation.”

It added: “The European Union 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.”

It comes after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the new legislation “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”.

It drew condemnation from a number of senior Tories, including former prime ministers Sir John Major and Theresa May.

Mr Šefčovič warned Mr Gove if the bill were to be adopted “it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law”.

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

They added: “Vice-president Maroš Šefčovič 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 that 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.

“He 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.”

But Mr Gove, the cabinet office minister, said he told the European Commission vice president the government "would not and could not" withdraw its Internal Market bill.

And the UK government defended the Internal Market bill, claiming Parliament would not be acting "unconstitutionally" by enacting it.

In an official legal opinion it stated: "It is an established principle of international law that a state is obliged to discharge its treaty obligations in good faith. This is, and will remain, the key principle in informing the UK's approach to international relations.

"However, in the difficult and highly exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is important to remember the fundamental principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.

"Parliament is sovereign as a matter of domestic law and can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK's treaty obligations. Parliament would not be acting unconstitutionally in enacting such legislation."

In another sign Mr Johnson’s administration would not back down, the statement added: "The legislation which implements the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, is expressly subject to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

"Parliament's ability to pass provisions that would take precedence over the Withdrawal Agreement was expressly confirmed in section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, with specific reference to the EU law concept of 'direct effect'."

Earlier Lord Howard became the third former Conservative party leader to criticise the PM's plans, accusing the government of damaging the UK's "reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law”.

Speaking in the House of Lords he said: "How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?"

And the Conservative former chancellor Lord Lamont told the BBC: "I think the Government will have to think again. I don't think this is going to get through the Lords in its present form.

"I think the Government had an arguable case but that case was destroyed the moment Brandon Lewis said the means the Government were going to use to change the Northern Ireland protocol was against international law. That is impossible to defend.

"I think the Government are in a terrible mess and in a hole and I don't think it is easy to justify.

"In a way this could take us back to square one with a terrible dilemma."

Meanwhile Labour accused Attorney General Suella Braverman of having "failed in her duty to uphold the rule of law in this country”.

Shadow attorney general 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."

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