Boris Johnson has set Britain on a collision course with the EU, after making the “incredibly dangerous” threat to ditch commitments in last year’s withdrawal agreement unless there is progress in the trade talks.
Ahead of the eighth round of Brexit negotiations, Downing Street confirmed that there are plans to “eliminate” the legal force of the withdrawal agreement if concessions from Brussels are not forthcoming in the next five weeks.
The move would in effect cancel a requirement for new Northern Ireland customs arrangements which were intended to prevent the return of checks at the border with the Irish Republic.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said that honouring the withdrawal agreement was “a precondition for confidence between us” while Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, said that abandoning the agreement would be “a very unwise way to proceed”.
The prime minister’s spokesman said that the move was designed to tie up some “loose ends” where there was a need for “legal certainty” and would ensure ministers could preserve the gains of the Good Friday Agreement in the event of no deal.
The plans, which form part of the Internal Market Bill, will ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid rules – which will continue to apply in Northern Ireland – will not apply in the rest of the UK.
In addition, an amendment to the Finance Bill will give ministers the power to designate which goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are considered “at risk” of entering the EU single market and are therefore liable to EU tariffs.
A UK trade official said: “If we don’t take these steps 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.”
However, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be no backtracking by the UK on its previous commitments if it wanted to reach a free trade agreement.
“I trust the British Government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership,” she said.
“(The) protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island and integrity of the single market.”
Former Chancellor Philip Hammond cautioned against undermining the withdrawal agreement, he said: “The UK is a rule-of-law state, and attempting to legislate domestically to override international law would be an incredibly dangerous step and bound to lead to conflict with the judiciary.
“It would also hugely damage our standing on the world stage.”
Nicola Sturgeon said the threat only heightened the risk of a no-deal and branded the prime minister, who ran on a campaign saying his Brexit deal was oven-ready, a “charlatan”.
Ms Sturgeon’s constitutional affairs spokesman, Mike Russell, said the decision would “not only consolidate opposition across these islands” but will also “alienate the European Union, further increasing the likelihood of the current talks collapsing”.
In a statement, Mr Johnson said he would not compromise on the “fundamentals” of what made Britain an independent nation and that no deal would still be a “good outcome” for the UK.
He said: “The EU have been very clear about the timetable. I am too. There needs to be an agreement with our European friends by the time of the European Council on October 15 if it’s going to be in force by the end of the year.
“So there is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point.
“If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on.”
Mr Johnson rejected predictions of economic disaster in such a scenario, insisting a no-deal would be a “good outcome for the UK”.
If this is in the Internal Market Bill , due to be published this week, then it will not only continue to be opposed by Scotland & Wales but will now threaten the stability of the NI Executive and alienate not just #EU but also any country that is considering an FTA with U.K. https://t.co/TYdOIe0cgZ
— Michael Russell (@Feorlean) September 6, 2020
He added: “As a Government we are preparing, at our borders and at our ports, to be ready for it. We will have full control over our laws, our rules, and our fishing waters.
“We will have the freedom to do trade deals with every country in the world. And we will prosper mightily as a result.”
Mr Johnson said the UK would look to find “sensible accommodations” on flights and haulage in the event of a no-deal.
He said there was “still an agreement to be had” if the EU compromised, but warned “we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it.”