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Michael Gove Will Hold Key Talks With A Top EU Official On A Crunch Day For Brexit

4 min read

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is set for an emergency meeting with a senior EU official following anger at the UK's plans to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic is due to travel to London later today for an "extraordinary" meeting of the UK-EU Joint Committee, set up to implement the withdrawal agreement.

The trip was scheduled after cabinet ministers admitted the new Internal Markets Bill, which sets out details of post-Brexit trading rules within the UK, would break international law "in a very specific and limited way".

The new legislation, published on Wednesday, would give ministers the power to ignore parts of the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the ability to change or remove export declarations for goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland.

And it also unpicks sections of the divorce deal in relation to state aid, saying the UK could decide new measures "notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or domestic law."

Downing Street has defended the plans, saying the bill sought to clarify "ambiguities" in the original agreement with the EU, which they claimed had been signed on the "assumption that subsequent agreements to clarify these aspects could be reached".

But speaking ahead of today's talks, Mr Sefovic said the EU could only continue to negotiate with London if there was trust between the two sides.

"For us this is of course a matter of principle," he said. "The trust to continue our discussion on the implementation ... is a must.

"I made it clear that the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation."

A Number 10 spokesperson said Mr Gove would use the meeting to "reiterate the UK's commitment to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol and to the joint committee process with the hope that an agreement remains possible within that framework".

They added: "I would expect him also to explain that as a responsible Government we must provide a safety net that removes any ambiguity and ensure that the Government can always deliver on its commitment to the people of Northern Ireland."

But the row risks scuppering the eighth round of formal talks between UK negotiator Lord Frost and EU representative Michel Barnier set to finish on Thursday.

And Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin said the decision had undermined faith in the UK's assertion that it hoped to strike a trade deal with the bloc.

In a 30-minute phone call with Mr Johnson on Wednesday, Mr Martin said he set out his "very strong concerns" over the consequences of the new legislation, insisting it "essentially nullifies and undermines what is an international treaty".

"I think the British government needs to move to restore trust and to give meaningful reassurance to the European negotiators," he said.

"Our colleagues in Europe, in particular those conducting the negotiations, are now wondering whether the will is there or not to arrive at a conclusion and get an agreement — and that is a very serious issue."

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson is also facing growing anger from senior figures within his own party over the potential damage to the UK's international standing, with former Conservative prime minister Sir John Major the latest to criticise the move.

"For generations, Britain's word - solemnly given - has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct," he said.

"If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained."

And the plans could damage Mr Johnson's hopes of striking a UK-US trade deal after top US Democrat Nancy Pelosi said there was "absolutely no chance" of any future deal passing through Congress if the Good Friday Agreement was put at risk.

The speaker of the House of Representatives added that Brexit "cannot be allowed to imperil" the peace process, including the "stability brough by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland".

"If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” Ms Pelosi added.

"The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress."

Responding to the comments a Downing Street spokesperson, said: "I think she was obviously reflecting on the Northern Ireland peace process.

"And if you look at the Prime Minister's words yesterday what he actually said was that his job as Prime Minister of the UK is to protect the NI peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and that's why we're taking the steps to introduce this safety net."

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