Britain said Monday it was seeking to “clarify” key parts of its EU divorce deal just as Brexit trade talks reached a crucial final stage, triggering warnings that it risks damaging its international reputation.
Alarm bells rang in Brussels after reports that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was planning new legislation that would override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement treaty he signed last year.
The Financial Times said a bill to be put before parliament this week would undermine agreements relating to Northern Ireland customs and state aid.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland, which will have Britain’s only land border with the EU, will follow some of the bloc’s rules to ensure the frontier remains open.
Eliminating border checks with the Republic of Ireland was a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of violence over British rule in the province.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said Britain was legally obliged to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, which would form the basis of future relations.
“Everything that has been signed must be respected,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier added, promising to quiz his UK counterpart, David Frost, about the plans when they resume talks on Tuesday.
In Ireland, Foreign Minister Simon Coveney cautioned the UK: “This would be a very unwise way to proceed.”
– ‘Remove ambiguity’ –
Johnson’s spokesman confirmed the government was taking “limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements of the Northern Ireland protocol in domestic law”.
The move was designed to “remove any ambiguity and to ensure the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland”, he told reporters.
Portraying the changes as technical tweaks, he added that the government remained “fully committed” to the Withdrawal Agreement and the Good Friday peace accord.
But it provoked an angry backlash in Dublin and Belfast, where the prospect of a potential “hard border” is a reminder of “The Troubles”.
Jitters were also felt on the currency market, where the pound slid against the dollar and euro on fears of a “no-deal”.
Sinn Fein president Mary Lou McDonald said the UK would show “total disregard for the lives and concern of the people of Ireland” if it backtracked on the Withdrawal Agreement.
Sinn Fein and other pro-EU parties in Northern Ireland said in a joint statement that any change by Britain would be a “serious betrayal”.
Johnson earlier said an EU summit on October 15 was the ultimate deadline for any free-trade deal to be in place by January 1 next 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,” he said, vowing no compromise on Britain’s fundamental interests.
– ‘Sabre-rattling’ –
Ireland’s deputy prime minister Leo Varadkar said the increased rhetoric from London and Brussels was inevitable “sabre-rattling” and “posturing” as the deadline approached.
Talks have been deadlocked over key issues such as the extent of EU access to UK fishing waters, state aid and fair competition rules.
Brussels has already indicated that mid-October is the latest a deal could be struck, given the need for translation and ratification by the European Parliament.
But if the deadline passes, Johnson said Britain would have an “Australia-style” deal with the EU or one similar to that agreed with Canada and other countries.
“As we have said right from the start, that would be a good outcome for the United Kingdom,” he said.
Britain formally left the 27-member bloc on January 31 but remains bound by EU rules until the end of December while it tries to thrash out new terms of its relationship.
Trade lawyer David Allen Green said reneging on the EU treaty was “the least sensible thing” that Britain could do as it seeks to negotiate new international trade agreements.
“Why would any other counter-party now trust UK to abide with commitments?” he wrote on Twitter.