Political leaders have described the reported plans as a “treacherous betrayal” by “charlatans”.
Updated Mon 10:30 PM
OVERRIDING ELEMENTS OF the Brexit withdrawal deal would amount to a serious betrayal of an international treaty, Northern Ireland’s pro-Remain parties have warned.
Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance Party and Green Party NI have voiced concern at the prospect of the UK government introducing domestic legislation to supersede parts of the deal’s Northern Ireland protocol governing state aid and customs arrangements.
In response to a Financial Times report outlining Boris Johnson’s apparent intention, the parties have written a joint letter to the government and the EU demanding that the terms of the treaty are honoured.
Under the protocol negotiated in the withdrawal deal, Northern Ireland will continue to follow single market rules for goods and administer the EU’s customs code at its ports.
Downing Street today said new Brexit legislation is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if Britain is unable to secure a free trade deal with the EU.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said the government was proposing “limited clarifications” to the law to ensure ministers can preserve the gains of the Good Friday Agreement in the event of no deal.
The Internal Market Bill – to be tabled on Wednesday – 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.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has said a certain amount of “sabre-rattling” is to be expected as Brexit trade negotiations are ongoing.
In reports a government spokesman appeared to confirm, the Financial Times said Boris Johnson was planning new legislation that would override key parts of the agreement – the treaty that sealed Britain’s exit from the EU in January – in a move that could risk collapsing the UK-EU trade talks.
The prime minister is expected to say today that collapsing the trade talks, should there be no agreement by the 15 October European Council, would still be a “good outcome for the UK”.
Johnson is expected to say: “We are now entering the final phase of our negotiations with the EU.
“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.
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.
In addition, an amendment to the UK’s 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.
The Prime Minister’s spokesman said discussions were continuing with the EU to resolve the outstanding issues relating to the Northern Ireland protocol, intended to ensure there is no return of a hard border with the Republic once the transition is over.
He said the legislative changes were a necessary “safety net” in the event that they were unable to come to an agreement.
“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 spokesman said.
“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.”
A UK official added: “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, speaking to reporters in Dublin today, Varadkar said the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is an international agreement and trumps any domestic legislation.
He said international agreements must be honoured.
A hard border on the island of Ireland “is something we all want to avoid”, said thee Tánaiste.
Varadkar said he “can’t speak for the British government or speculate on their motivations”. He said he is keen for an agreement to be reached by the end of the year.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she is very concerned about recent developments.
“The message is very clear that the withdrawal agreement has been signed, sealed and delivered, that the Irish protocol is part and parcel of that. And there is no plan B there is no rolling back from that position, and it’s essential that the government is absolutely crystal clear on that.
“We have agreed that there could be no damage to the Good Friday Agreement that there can be no hardening of the border on the island of Ireland and Ireland cannot be the collateral damage for this Tory Brexit,” she said.
‘Let’s get on with it!’
Ursula von der Leyen, who is President of the European Commission, the highest position within the EU’s institutions, said in respose:
I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership.
Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island & integrity of the single market.
French President Emmanuel Macron tweeted saying he had held a “very good discussion” with Boris Johnson on subjects including Brexit and steps to tackle migration across the English Channel.
He wrote: “We will step up our co-operation against migrant smugglers. We discussed steps to take following the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, the situation in Lebanon and the future relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney described the EC president’s words as “clear and important”.
Reacting to the news also, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said that the Brexit terms that Britain agreed to before formally exiting the European Union “must be respected”.
“The important thing for me is what the prime minister says and does, and what the British government itself says and does,” Barnier told France Inter radio.
Former chancellor Philip Hammond has claimed that overriding the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with any UK legislation would be “an incredibly dangerous step”.
He tweeted: “Let’s be clear on two points: 1) Leaving without a deal would not be a ‘good outcome for the UK’; nor would it be the outcome Boris and the Brexiteers promised.”
He added: “2) 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.”
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Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said the move would constitute a repudiation by the UK government of a treaty “freely negotiated by it” and which was described as “oven ready” by Johnson.
“This will significantly increase likelihood of no deal, and the resulting damage to the economy will be entirely Tory inflicted. What charlatans.”
This would be a very unwise way to proceed. #Brexit .
https://t.co/D4aod2665h— Simon Coveney (@simoncoveney)September 6, 2020
Coveney said the reported development would be “a very unwise way to proceed”.
The German ambassador to the UK, Andreas Michaelis, gave a calmer reaction to the news:
After the Brexit remarks of PM I wonder if Germany can still claim being an independent country. Germany is state party to hundreds of international treaties. Underlying compromises have certainly not eroded our sovereignty. Same would hold true of a Brexit deal. Let’s get on with it!
The pre-briefed words from Johnson arrived as the Financial Times reported sections of the Internal Market Bill, due to be published on Wednesday, are expected to “eliminate” the legal force of the Withdrawal Agreement in areas including state aid and Northern Ireland customs.
As part of the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the region is expected to continue to follow some EU rules after the transition period ends in 2021 to ensure there is no hard border.
Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews said that he raised this issue “on a number of occasions” last week in the European Parliament.
Next Progress Report on NI Protocol due end September same time as final scheduled round of future relations negotiations. Decoupling FTA from implementation of [Withdrawal Agreement] not acceptable.
“If the British Government thinks that reneging on international treaty obligations makes them look more attractive to third countries for trade deals, then I worry for us all,” Andrews’ FF MEP colleague Billy Kelleher said.
‘Undermine the Good Friday Agreement’
SDLP leader Colum Eastwood also said the government would be undermining the Good Friday Agreement, risking the future of the UK and destroying its own credibility on the world stage if it proceeded with one of the most “reckless” acts concerning Ireland by a British government “in a long long time”.
“It’s absolutely astonishing that any government who says they want to go and do trade deals around the world would just rip up an agreement that they made a few months ago with the European Union,” Eastwood told BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour.
“And what they would be doing in that would be undermining the Good Friday Agreement which is an agreement voted for by the vast majority of people on the island of Ireland, they’d be risking a hard border in our country and they’d be threatening the peace and security that we’ve built up over decades.
“It would be the most reckless act that a British government, and they’ve made many reckless acts in Ireland … in a long, long time and if they do this their international credibility I think would be shot to pieces.”
Eastwood said he hoped the reported manoeuvrings by the UK government were “just posturing, because if they try to do this at the same time as trying to convince people in Scotland and Northern Ireland about the future of their Union, well they may as well forget about that as well, because people here will see this as a tremendous act of bad faith”.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary, Labour MP Louise Haigh, said: “It beggars belief that the Government is – yet again – playing a dangerous game in Northern Ireland and sacrificing our international standing at the altar of the Prime Minister’s incompetence.”
The suggested move, along with Johnson’s comments about no-deal, is likely to pile the pressure on as negotiators prepare to meet tomorrow for another round of crunch talks in London.
With reporting by Órla Ryan and Christina Finn