The EU has given Boris Johnson 20 days to back down on his plans to alter the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement or risk collapsing trade talks and face legal action for breaking an international treaty.

Government plans to override elements of the divorce deal over Northern Ireland the Prime Minister signed in January constituted an ‘extremely serious violation’, negotiators from Brussels said today. 

But despite the threat of tearing up large amounts of progress with less than four months until the end of the transition period, Michael Gove promised that the UK ‘will not back down’. 

Brussels has given the Prime Minister until the end of the month to scrap his controversial proposals to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement. 

The bloc said it will ‘not be shy’ in launching legal proceedings against Britain if the PM fails to change tack as it said negotiations over a trade deal are ‘at risk’. 

But Mr Gove said the UK ‘could not and would not’ retreat on the issue as the chances of the two sides parting ways at the end of the transition period in December without a trade accord increased dramatically. 

Asked if he was willing to swear on his job as Minister for the Cabinet Office that the Government will not back down, Mr Gove replied: ‘Yes.’ 

The trading of barbs came after Mr Gove met with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic for showdown talks in London at lunchtime. 

But rather than reduce tensions the meeting appeared to have deepened the divide between the two sides.

Mr Johnson is said to be facing a revolt by up to 30 Tory MPs, including Brexiteers, over the plans which have caused discomfort in Parliament. 

The rebels have tabled an amendment that would bar the government from overriding the withdrawal agreement without support from parliament.

A government source told The Times that MPs rebelling on the Internal Market Bill would not have the whip removed, unlike those who voted against Mr Johnson’s Brexit deal last year. 

And the government is also facing opposition from peers, with Lord Michael Howard, a prominent Brexiteer, becoming the third former Tory leader after Sir John Major and Theresa May to criticise the move.

Former Chancellor Lord Norman Lamont said there was ‘no way’ that the legislation would pass through the Lords. 

Michael Gove today guaranteed the UK will not agree to EU demands for Boris Johnson to drop plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal

Michael Gove today guaranteed the UK will not agree to EU demands for Boris Johnson to drop plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal

Brussels has given the Prime Minister until the end of the month to scrap his controversial proposals to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement. Pictured: EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier heads to his hotel after a day of negotiations

Brussels has given the Prime Minister until the end of the month to scrap his controversial proposals to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement. Pictured: EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier heads to his hotel after a day of negotiations

The trading of barbs came after Mr Gove met with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic for showdown talks in London at lunchtime. Pictured: Mr Sefcovic leaves EU House in central London

The trading of barbs came after Mr Gove met with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic for showdown talks in London at lunchtime. Pictured: Mr Sefcovic leaves EU House in central London

Why is the EU so angry about Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans?

What is the row about?

Ministers are acting unilaterally to ‘clarify’ how parts of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal will operate in Northern Ireland. This involves legislating to tie up ‘loose ends’ on issues like state aid, tariffs and the paperwork faced by businesses trading with the rest of the UK.

Is the PM tearing up the deal he negotiated last year?

Downing Street yesterday said the PM would implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol regardless of whether or not a trade deal is struck. It was designed to prevent the need for a hard border in Ireland. But some details were left unresolved. They have been the subject of negotiations by a joint EU-UK committee. But, with the UK’s departure now approaching fast, ministers decided to act unilaterally on ‘minor’ issues to prevent ‘legal confusion’. These include state aid, tariffs and the paperwork businesses should face.

What does the EU say?

The bloc is furious at the suggestion that the UK should be able to act unilaterally on certain issues. European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said sticking to the letter of the deal was a ‘precondition’ for any trade agreement. Dutch PM Mark Rutte said it was ‘not very reassuring’ and warned a deal looked ‘very difficult’. But there was no immediate move to halt trade talks.

Why is this happening now?

Downing Street says it is the last chance to clarify the situation in law before the end of the year when the Brexit transition period will expire. Some Tories believe the timing of the move is part of a broader tactic designed to put pressure on the EU to cut a deal now or risk the UK acting independently in even more areas.

What is the UK proposing on state aid?

Under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland will effectively remain in the EU customs union and single market when the rest of the UK leaves. This means that EU state aid rules will continue to apply in Northern Ireland. Ministers feared that the Commission could try to extend its jurisdiction to British firms with links to Northern Ireland. Under the new provisions, Business Secretary Alok Sharma will decide whether or not a subsidy has to be reported to the EU.

Will firms in N. Ireland face extra paperwork?

They had been braced to have to make export declarations on goods shipped to the rest of the UK. Boris Johnson last year told firms there they should put any forms ‘in the bin’. Ministers have now ruled unilaterally that export declarations will not have to be made.

Will goods shipped there face EU tariffs?

One of the EU’s biggest concerns is that Northern Ireland could become a ‘back door’ for British goods entering the single market. The Withdrawal Agreement sets out plans to create a list of goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland which are ‘at risk’ of entering the single market via Ireland. These would then face EU tariffs. Under the changes, UK ministers will now decide which exports should be placed on the ‘at risk’ list.

The EU said in a statement that if the Government goes ahead with its plans to row back on commitments made in the Withdrawal Agreement it would ‘constitute an extremely serious violation’ of the treaty and of international law. 

It demanded Number 10 scrap its proposals ‘in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month’ as it said the UK had ‘seriously damaged trust’ between Britain and Brussels.

The bloc said ‘it is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust’ as it warned there will be consequences if Mr Johnson does not perform a U-turn.

The statement said Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove ‘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’. 

The EU said it ‘does not accept’ the UK’s argument that the PM’s proposals are necessary in order to protect the Good Friday Agreement and actually believes Mr Johnson’s approach ‘does the opposite’.  

Michel Barnier and his British counterpart Lord Frost wrapped up the latest round of Brexit trade talks this afternoon, with gloom growing about the prospects of a breakthrough. 

Mr Barnier said while the EU had ‘shown flexibility’ on the UK’s red lines, the UK had ‘not engaged in a reciprocal way’. He said the two negotiating teams will ‘remain in contact’ but insisted the EU is ‘intensifying its preparedness work to be ready for all scenarios on 1 January 2021’. 

Officials from the bloc have been briefing that they believe the UK is deliberately trying to blow up the process, and has already decided there will not be a deal. 

The Government yesterday published its UK Internal Market Bill which ministers have admitted will break international law but insist is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process. 

The Bill would see the UK unilaterally decide key details relating to the Brexit divorce deal. 

Brussels is adamant the details, which include customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, must be settled by a joint committee comprised of people from both sides.  

Mr Gove said the UK Government will not be agreeing to the EU’s demand to withdraw the legislation. 

‘The UK Government is committed to the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol,’ he said.

‘Vice-president Sefcovic also requested that the UK withdraw its Internal Market legislation.

‘I explained to vice-president Sefcovic that we could not and would not do that and instead I stressed the vital importance of reaching agreement through the joint committee on these important questions.’

Asked if he was willing to swear on his Cabinet role that the Government will not back down, Mr Gove said: ‘Yes. I made it perfectly clear to vice president Sefcovic that we would not be withdrawing this legislation and he understood that, of course he regretted it.

‘But we also stressed the vital importance of making progress.’

Ministers today signalled their intention to crash the legislation through the House of Commons over the next two weeks.

Downing Street did not reject the claim that it was seeking to fast track the laws through Parliament. 

The Prime Minister’s Official Spokesman suggested the swift timetable was necessary to ‘ensure it is on the statute book by the beginning of 2021’. 

The Government published its legal argument for breaking international law shortly before Brussels issued its demands. 

The Government argued that while countries are obliged to discharge treaty obligations ‘in good faith’ the UK is facing ‘difficult and highly exceptional circumstances’ and ‘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,’ the Government said. 

‘Parliament would not be acting unconstitutionally in enacting such legislation.’ 

No chlorine chicken in any US deal, junior minister says 

The Government would not allow chlorinated chicken or hormone-injected beef to be sold in the UK as part of any future trade deal with the US, a junior minister has said.

David TC Davies said it was against the current law for either of these products to be sold in Britain and food hygiene standards would not be watered down post-Brexit in pursuit of any international trade deals.

There are fears the Internal Market Bill would prevent devolved administrations from legislating on food safety and could see them having to accept lower standards set by the UK.

The junior Wales minister told the Welsh Affairs Committee the Government had no intention of changing the law to allow US-produced chlorinated chicken and hormone-injected beef to be sold in the UK.

‘This cannot happen under existing legislation,’ he said.

‘If we wanted to do that, we don’t, but if we did we would have to come forward with legislation and there would be a big debate about it.

‘I can guarantee there would be a lot of noise but we don’t intend to do that and therefore we could not sign a trade deal with anyone, even if we wanted to, that would allow hormone-injected beef or chlorinated chicken without changing the law.

‘We’re not going to change the law and I found that privately there seems to be an acceptance of this.’

The minister said Environment Secretary George Eustice had made the same points when he addressed the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs on Wednesday. 

But Labour’s shadow attorney general Lord Falconer said the Government had offered ‘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’.

The Liberal Democrats urged ministers to listen to the EU’s ultimatum and accused the PM of ‘playing fast and loose with the rule of law’. 

‘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,’ the party’s Brexit spokesman Christine Jardine said.

‘This proposal undermines trust and the UK’s standing on the world stage. 

‘The Government must now act swiftly to erase anything that violates international law or that could undermine the Good Friday Agreement. 

‘For the sake of the future of our country the Government must stop playing fast and loose with the rule of law.’ 

Remain campaigners accused Mr Johnson of ‘painting the entire country into a very small corner’. 

Best for Britain CEO Naomi Smith said: ‘The international reputation of brand Britain is being shredded, our chances of desperately-needed trade deals with the EU and US – which he promised us – are shrinking by the hour, and the country is still trying to fathom how to cope with Covid-19, never mind recover from its impact.’

Mr Johnson is also facing a growing Tory rebellion on the issue amid considerable backbench disquiet over the decision to pursue a strategy which will leave the UK in breach of international law.  

Lord Howard today became the third former leader of the Conservative Party to criticise Mr Johnson as the PM was accused of putting the UK’s global reputation as a trustworthy nation at risk. 

The peer, who served as Tory leader from 2003 to 2005, told a Government minister in the House of Lords: ‘Does my noble and learned friend simply not understand the damage done to our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law by those five words uttered by his ministerial colleague in another place on Tuesday?

‘Words which I never thought I would hear uttered by a British minister, far less a Conservative minister.

‘How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards when we are showing such scant regard for treaty obligations.’

Sir John Major and Theresa May had both already criticised Mr Johnson.  

Michel Barnier, pictured in London this morning, today concluded the latest round of Brexit trade talks with British counterpart Lord Frost without a breakthrough

Michel Barnier, pictured in London this morning, today concluded the latest round of Brexit trade talks with British counterpart Lord Frost without a breakthrough

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was 'very concerned' following the tabling in Parliament of the UK Internal Market Bill

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was ‘very concerned’ following the tabling in Parliament of the UK Internal Market Bill

Lord Howard joins Theresa May and Sir John Major in criticising Boris Johnson’s plans

Lord Howard today became the third former leader of the Conservative Party to criticise Boris Johnson over his plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal. 

The peer said the UK will no longer be able to criticise Russia, China or Iran for flouting international rules if the Government shows such ‘scant regard’ for the treaties it signs up to. 

Theresa May and Sir John Major have already savaged Mr Johnson over his decision to override the accord struck between Britain and Brussels at the end of last year. 

A furious Lord Howard, who served as Tory leader from 2003 to 2005, told a Government minister in the upper chamber: ‘Does my noble and learned friend simply not understand the damage done to our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of law by those five words uttered by his ministerial colleague in another place on Tuesday?

‘Words which I never thought I would hear uttered by a British minister, far less a Conservative minister.

‘How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards when we are showing such scant regard for treaty obligations.’  

Sir John yesterday warned: ‘For generations, Britain’s word – solemnly given – has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct.

‘Over the last century, as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power. If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.’ 

Mrs May said on Tuesday: ‘The United Kingdom Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that Withdrawal Agreement into UK legislation. The Government is now changing the operation of that agreement. 

‘Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?’ 

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis sparked outrage earlier this week by bluntly admitting that the measures proposed by Mr Johnson will breach international law. 

And Downing Street claimed yesterday that the Withdrawal Agreement was ‘not like any other treaty’ because it was sealed ‘at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances’.

Mr Johnson said at PMQs that his first responsibility was to protect the Peace Process.  

‘My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK but also to protect the Northern Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,’ the PM said.

‘To do that we need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol, which could lead to a border down the Irish Sea in a way that I believe – and I think members around the House believe – would be prejudicial to the interests of the Good Friday Agreement and prejudicial to the interests of peace in our country. That has to be our priority.’  

The Internal Market Bill, published yesterday, would unilaterally decide details that Brussels insists must be settled by the joint committee, including customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland

The Internal Market Bill, published yesterday, would unilaterally decide details that Brussels insists must be settled by the joint committee, including customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland

However, the PM’s approach has spooked some US politicians who have warned there will be no chance of a trans-Atlantic trade deal if the UK does anything to undermine the Northern Ireland peace process. 

Nancy Pelosi, the US Speaker of the House, underlined the high stakes as she delivered a stark warning. 

She said last night that there was ‘absolutely no chance’ of Congress passing an American trade deal with the UK if the Good Friday Agreement was ‘imperilled’. 

In a statement Ms Pelosi said: ‘The Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland and an inspiration for the whole world.  

‘Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

‘The UK must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the EU to ensure the free flow of goods across the border.

‘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.

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

What does the EU’s threat of legal action on Brexit actually mean and how would it work?

The EU has reminded the UK that the Brexit divorce deal ‘contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations’ of the agreement.

The bloc said it will ‘not be shy’ in using those mechanisms if Boris Johnson refuses to drop plans to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The main mechanism to which the bloc is likely referring is an arbitration panel which both sides have committed to setting up and which will be tasked with resolving disputes relating to the implementation of the deal.

The panel will consist of 25 people – 10 proposed by the UK, 10 proposed by the EU and then five people jointly nominated by both sides.

After the end of the transition period the UK and the EU will be able to refer a dispute to the panel to resolve. Any decision made by the panel would be legally binding on both parties.

If a dispute involves a question of EU law then the panel has to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union to rule on.

If either side fail to comply with the ruling of the panel then it can impose a lump sum penalty payment which must be paid to the aggrieved party.



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