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Brussels delivers Brexit ultimatum to Boris Johnson

The EU today delivered a bombshell ultimatum to Boris Johnson as it said he has until the end of the month to withdraw his plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal or he will face legal action. 

European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic and Michael Gove met in London this afternoon for showdown talks over the Prime Minister’s controversial proposals.  

But rather than reduce tensions the meeting appeared to have deepened the divide between the two sides as the EU demanded Mr Johnson perform a U-turn and warned failure to do so will risk the collapse of trade talks. 

The bloc 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 has demanded Number 10 withdraw 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 Brussels and London.

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 change tack. 

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’.

Brussels said the current situation ‘put at risk’ the future of trade talks and the EU ‘expects the letter and spirit’ of the Withdrawal Agreement ‘to be fully respected’. 

The UK Government is yet to formally respond to the EU’s statement but earlier ministers had set out their intention to crash the PM’s plans through the House of Commons over the next two weeks. 

The decision by Downing Street to accelerate the passage of the proposals through Parliament will be seen as a hugely provocative move given just how strongly the EU opposes them.

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 on the key issues of fishing rights and obeying EU rules.

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 European Commission's Marco Sefcovic arrived in London this morning for emergency talks with Michael Gove but the talks ended in acrimony

The European Commission’s Marco Sefcovic arrived in London this morning for emergency talks with Michael Gove but the talks ended in acrimony

Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove that the UK has until the end of the month to withdraw Boris Johnson's plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal

Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove that the UK has until the end of the month to withdraw Boris Johnson’s plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal

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 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. 

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was ‘very concerned’ following the tabling in Parliament of the draft legislation.  

She said such actions would ‘undermine trust’ and called on the Prime Minister to honour his past commitments.  

Downing Street today did not reject the claim that it was seeking to fast track the legislation 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’. 

As well as fury in Brussels, 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. 

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. 








Michel Barnier, pictured in London this morning, will today conclude the latest round of Brexit trade talks with British counterpart Lord Frost but the chances of a breakthrough appear slim

Michel Barnier, pictured in London this morning, will today conclude the latest round of Brexit trade talks with British counterpart Lord Frost but the chances of a breakthrough appear slim

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








‘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.’ 

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’. 

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








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.’ 

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