The Brexit negotiations hit a new low as the most senior EU leaders in Brussels said they had lost trust in Boris Johnson over his plans to break international law and breach a painstakingly negotiated agreement on Northern Ireland.
Within minutes of the government tabling the internal market bill, the clauses of which negate key aspects of the withdrawal agreement signed by the prime minister last year, both the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the president of the European council, Charles Michel, issued condemnatory statements.
“Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the withdrawal Agreement,” Von der Leyen tweeted. “This would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations.”
Michel, a former Belgian prime minister who chairs the summits of EU heads of state and government, described the decision by Downing Street as “unacceptable”, raising concerns about the future of the talks being staged in London between the UK’s negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.
“The withdrawal agreement was concluded and ratified by both sides, it has to be applied in full,” Michel tweeted. “Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship.”
France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said his government expected Downing Street to live up to its legal commitments. “Compliance with the withdrawal agreement is not negotiable. Commitments have been made, they must be implemented,” he said. “Among friends and allies, we must keep our word and respect the law. The European Union is committed to it, we expect it from the United Kingdom.”
One senior EU diplomat said: “A quick reading of the relevant articles of the internal market bill suggest the UK government is launching a frontal assault on the protocol and its obligations. Well beyond what was reported in the UK press.
“No effort was made to obscure the UK government’s ability to deviate from the arrangements in the Ireland protocol. It even explicitly spells out the possibility to do so. It also gives ministers the power to derogate from his own national regulations in this context.
“Notwithstanding the consequences for the negotiations this must be the absolute nadir of four years of negations by a country known as the cradle of democracy and which, from the Magna Carta onwards, has fought for the development of the rule of law in the UK and, above all, beyond. It shows once again the fragility of the rule of law.”
The comments from Brussels and Paris raise concerns that the row will have a direct impact on the trade and security negotiations, with just five weeks to go before Johnson has said he needs a deal to be agreed.
The EU has repeatedly insisted that full implementation of the withdrawal agreement is a precondition for any agreement on a deal with the UK on the trading and security arrangements when the current transition period ends on 31 December.
The publication of a thin document on the UK’s plans for state aid, setting out a timeline for consultation, only added to the pessimism in Brussels over the outcome of the trade and security negotiations. The EU had been seeking details from Downing Street on how it plans to control domestic subsidies but instead the government said it would merely launch a consultation in the “coming months”.
EU sources said they had been looking for some sign that an independent regulator would be established but instead the government merely offered a pledge not to return to bailouts of the kind seen in the 1970s. “It is bad. No independent regulator, no details to speak of,” said one diplomatic source. A second senior diplomat warned: “The chances of a successful outcome are now small.”
With tensions high, the commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said he had sought an extraordinary meeting of the joint committee he chairs with Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, “as soon as possible” to force the UK to respond to EU concerns over the internal market bill.
Šefčovič said: “I expressed our strong concerns and sought strong assurances that the UK will fully and timely comply with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”
Gove is said to have “explained the limited and reasonable steps being introduced to create a safety net that removes any ambiguity and ensures that the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland”, but Šefčovič wants a face-to-face meeting to allow the UK to elaborate its position.
Gove, who has accepted the invitation, said he hoped the committee discussions would reach “a satisfactory conclusion”.
The latest clash came as a row erupted over UK food standards. UK government sources claim “veiled threats” were made during recent negotiations not to licence UK food manufacturers for imports of to the EU.
If the UK was not on the “third country list” of states whose food standards were high enough to be fit for import into the EU it would cause huge problems in Northern Ireland, the sources said.
According to the Sun, Brussels threatened to disrupt movement of food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as part of negotiations.
It is claimed by the UK that Barnier had sought to leverage the European commission’s power to withhold approval of the UK’s regime during the trade and security talks, and that this had prompted the prime minister to look for ways to undermine the withdrawal agreement through the internal market bill.
One senior MEP, Nathalie Loiseau, a former French minister for EU affairs, called the claim “fake news”.
Loiseau, who sits on a committee of MEPs coordinating the European parliament’s position on trade talks with the UK, said she feared Brexiters were looking for a reason to blow up the current talks. “Do you want us to lose patience and slam the door and leave?” she asked.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Loiseau said the UK’s suggestion of threats coming from Barnier was a fresh example of “disinformation and fake news related to Brexit”.
“I’m not in Boris Johnson’s head, but what’s taking place right now is fake news. You’ll remember a few days ago, this rumour that the 27 [EU member states] would withdraw their confidence in Michel Barnier, which was completely invented.
“Then you have the British prime minister saying that a no deal could be a good solution for the UK. Everybody knows it’s not real. It’s a manmade catastrophe.”