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EU chief says chances of Brexit trade deal 'fading every day'

Ursula von der Leyen today warned hopes of the EU and UK agreeing a trade deal are fading with every passing day as tensions remain high over Boris Johnson’s plans to tear up parts of the Brexit divorce deal.  

The President of the European Commission hit out at the Prime Minister’s proposals to override the Withdrawal Agreement as she said the accord struck last year ‘cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied’. 

The EU has given Mr Johnson until the end of the month to withdraw his plans, with Brussels warning that a failure to do so risks the total collapse of trade talks.

‘With every day that passes, the chances of a timely agreement do start to fade,’ Ms von der Leyen told the European Parliament this morning.

Her comments came amid claims that Michel Barnier, the EU’s top negotiator, said Mr Johnson had sparked the Brexit row in order to distract from the Government’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. 

He made the comments at a private meeting of European ambassadors on Monday this week, according to Politico.  

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today hinted the Government could strike a compromise with Tory rebels over the PM’s Brexit plans. 

Ministers have admitted the proposals would break international law, sparking a revolt by Conservative backbenchers. 

The rebels want Parliament to have the ability to veto any move by Mr Johnson to depart from the divorce deal – a so-called ‘parliamentary lock’. 

Mr Buckland said this morning he believed the original plans could be made ‘acceptable to all Conservative colleagues’ in a sign that ministers are willing to shift on the issue to win over their Tory critics. 

His comments came as Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab prepares to meet US Speaker Nancy Pelosi in Washington to assuage her Brexit concerns. 

Ms Pelosi said last week there would be ‘absolutely no chance’ of Congress passing an American trade deal with the UK if the PM’s Brexit plans ‘imperilled’ the Good Friday Agreement.

Meanwhile, a group of four senior US congressmen have written to Mr Johnson to express a similar sentiment as they urged him to ‘abandon’ any proposals which could undermine the peace process. 

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission pictured in Brussels today, warned hopes of the EU striking a 'timely' trade deal with the UK are fading

Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission pictured in Brussels today, warned hopes of the EU striking a ‘timely’ trade deal with the UK are fading

Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator, is said to have told European ambassadors that Boris Johnson sparked the latest Brexit row in order to distract from the Government's coronavirus chaos

Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, is said to have told European ambassadors that Boris Johnson sparked the latest Brexit row in order to distract from the Government’s coronavirus chaos

Mr Johnson's proposals, contained within the UK Internal Market Bill, would enable the Government to override parts of the Brexit divorce deal

Mr Johnson’s proposals, contained within the UK Internal Market Bill, would enable the Government to override parts of the Brexit divorce deal

What does the UK Internal Market Bill do, and how do rebels want to amend it? 

Former minister Bob Neill has tabled a key amendment to the Bill

Former minister Bob Neill has tabled a key amendment to the Bill

The UK Internal Market Bill is intended to be a ‘safety net’ in case the EU tries to impose an ‘extreme’ interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement.

If Brussels refused to list the UK as a ‘third country’, there would effectively be a blockade on food exports going from the mainland to Northern Ireland. 

In response, the legislation would give ministers powers to override key parts of the divorce terms – bypassing a joint committee that is means to thrash out key issues such as over customs. 

However, critics complain that the move would breach international law – something Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted last week was the case.

The PM insisted Parliament would get a vote if he ever want to invoke the unusual powers – designed to prevent Brussels from ‘blockading’ food exports to NI. But in fact it appears any vote would be ‘affirmative’ – held after the action had been implemented. 

Rebels are gathering behind an amendment from former minister Bob Neill, proposing a ‘Parliamentary lock’ so MPs would need to approve overriding the Withdrawal Agreement before it happens.  

A potential way of buying off some rebels would be to offer a less stringent lock, limiting the scope of ministers to deploy the controversial measures in the Bill while keeping the weapon in the arsenal if the EU refused to budge.

One MP involved in the mutiny told MailOnline that the government did not need to remove the clauses from the legislation altogether, and part of the frustration was that other options, such as the dispute mechanisms in the WA, had not been exhausted. 

‘I don’t think anyone should seriously doubt the need to prepare for these circumstances,’ the MP said. ‘They might only need a caveat saying these clauses would only come into effect after the final ruling of the arbitration panel.’ 

The Government sparked a furious row with the EU after it published its UK Internal Market Bill last week.

The legislation will enable the UK to unilaterally make decisions on key issues, like customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, contained within the Withdrawal Agreement. 

Brussels is adamant that the decisions must be made by a joint committee made up of people from both sides – as set out in the treaty.

But the Government argues its new proposals are necessary in order to protect the integrity of the UK should the two sides be unable to agree terms. 

Ms von der Leyen said this morning that the disagreement was a ‘matter of law and trust and good faith’ as she said the UK could not simply decide to unilaterally ditch parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Delivering her State of the Union address to the European Parliament in Brussels this morning, Ms von der Leyen said: ‘This Withdrawal Agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it line-by-line, word-by-word, and together we succeeded.

‘The European Union and the UK jointly agreed that it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland and we will never backtrack on that.

‘This agreement has been ratified by this house and the House of Commons. It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded, disapplied.

‘This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.’

Ms von der Leyen said Margaret Thatcher had always insisted the UK honoured its treaty commitments.

She quoted the former prime minister as saying: ‘Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade.’

Mrs von der Leyen added: ‘This was true then and this is true today. Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.’

The Brexit transition period is due to end in December and trade talks between the two sides remain ongoing. 

However, the latest row has delivered a significant blow to already low hopes of an agreement being reached. 

As well as prompting anger in Brussels, the Government’s plans have also sparked considerable concern among Conservative MPs. 

Tory rebels have put forward an amendment to the legislation which would create a ‘parliamentary lock’ on any attempt by the Government to try to depart from the Brexit divorce deal. 

A vote on the amendment is scheduled to take place next Tuesday but Mr Buckland today suggested the Government could move on the issue in order to stop the rebellion. 

He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I think that the issue is this. We want to make sure that if we hit a situation where we have this sort of dislocation, this sort of crisis if you like, that we can act swiftly to bring in to power the necessary regulations.

‘I think that whilst actually we have got parliamentary procedures to allow secondary legislation to come into force with debate and scrutiny, we have got to get the balance right.

‘We want to make sure that we are fleet of foot when it comes to the crunch but at the same time to make sure that MPs have their say.

‘That is what the Prime Minister wants, that is what he said in parliament and I am sure we will find a way to do that in a manner that is acceptable to all Conservative colleagues.’ 

Mr Buckland also stressed the provisions within the UK Internal Market Bill which would allow Britain to override the Withdrawal Agreement and breach international law would only be used if the EU breached its Brexit obligations first.

He told Sky News: ‘If we reach that stage, the reason for it is because we judge that sadly, despite everybody’s best efforts, the EU is in a position where we think they are actually breaching their obligations to us.’ 

He said the controversial powers were effectively a ‘break glass in case of emergency provision’ and would only be used in the event that other arbitration mechanisms failed to resolve disagreements between the UK and EU. 








Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today hinted the Government could compromise on its Brexit plans to win over Tory rebels

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland today hinted the Government could compromise on its Brexit plans to win over Tory rebels

Nancy Pelosi

Dominic Raab

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab is in Washington today for talks with US counterpart Mike Pompeo and US Speaker Nancy Pelosi with Brexit expected to feature heavily

What happens next in the Brexit process? 

The UK formally left the EU on January 31 this year. 

However, the two sides moved seamlessly into a status quo transition period lasting until December 31. 

This time was set aside to allow Brussels and Britain to hammer out the terms of their future relationship.

Trade talks started in March and the eighth round of formal negotiations is due to get underway in London tomorrow. 

However, talks are at a standstill amid disagreements on fishing rights and whether the UK will sign up to Brussels’ rules and regulations. 

Downing Street has said it does not want talks to drag into the autumn while the EU wants a deal done by the of October in order to give member states enough time to ratify it before the end of the transition period. 

Given the time constraints and the lack of progress being made both sides now view a deal by the end of the year as unlikely.  

He did not deny that he has held talks with Tory rebel leader Bob Neill, the chairman of the Justice Select Committee. 

‘I don’t think it would be right of me to start talking about private conversations,’ he said. 

The tone of Mr Buckland’s comments is in stark contrast to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s blunt admission last week that the Government’s plans will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.

Mr Lewis joined Mr Buckland in hinting there could be a compromise as he gave evidence to the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee this morning. 

He said debate on the Bill is ‘ongoing’ and it would be ‘wrong of me to presuppose what the outcome will be’. 

Mr Lewis refused to guarantee the Government would abide by decisions made by a UK/EU arbitration panel on disputes as he said it was ‘dangerous’ to get into ‘hypotheticals’.  

 The Northern Ireland Secretary also dismissed claims made by Lord Keen of Elie, the Advocate General for Scotland, that Mr Lewis had ‘answered the wrong question’  last week when he said the Bill does break international law. 

Mr Lewis told the Committee: ‘I have spoken to Lord Keen and I have to say… looking at the specific question my honourable friend asked me last week, he agrees the answer I gave was the correct answer.’ 

It came as Mr Raab tries to assuage concerns in the US over the Government’s Brexit proposals. 

The Foreign Secretary is due to meet with Ms Pelosi as well as his counterpart Mike Pompeo. 

Last week Ms Pelosi warned the UK there would be no trade deal with Washington if Britain undermined the Good Friday Agreement.

She said: ‘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.’        

Meanwhile, four senior US congressmen, led by chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee Eliot Engel, have written to Mr Johnson urging the Government to respect its open border and peace process with Northern Ireland.

The letter, which was also signed by Mr Engel’s fellow Democrats Richard Neal and William Keating as well as Republican Peter King, urged the PM to ‘abandon any and all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement’. 

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