Michel Barnier today lashed out at Boris Johnson over his threat to tear up Brexit divorce terms – warning that it would mean no trade deal.
The EU negotiator said that ‘respecting’ the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement was a ‘precondition’ for settling the future relationship.
The angry response came amid claims the UK is set to renege on parts of the pact ministers signed with the EU in January – a move that risks further damaging hopes of a deal.
Legislation due to be published this week could unilaterally settle issues including on customs checks between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, which Brussels believes should be settled by a joint committee.
But Environment Secretary George Eustice insisted that the Bill was merely clearing up ‘loopholes’ in the agreement, and there was no question of reneging.
Boris Johnson further stoked tensions today by saying he will walk away from trade talks in five weeks unless the EU ‘rethinks’ its demands, saying that would still be a ‘good outcome’.
The PM said there was ‘no sense’ in allowing faltering trade talks to continue beyond October 15, when EU leaders are due to hold a major summit in Brussels.
Mr Johnson said there was ‘still an agreement to be had’ but he ‘cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it’, such as the freedom for the UK to set its own laws and fish its own waters.
Boris Johnson says there is ‘still an agreement to be had’ but says he ‘cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it’
The PM’s comments come ahead of crunch talks in London tomorrow between his chief negotiator David Frost (left) and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier (right)
EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered a thinly-veiled warning to the UK about breaking ‘international law’
What is the argument over the Withdrawal Agreement?
When the Withdrawal Agreement was done last year, some key details were left to be settled.
The issues included exactly what kind of goods coming from the British mainland to Northern Ireland are due to be classed as ‘at risk’ of entering the EU single market – meaning they must be subject to controls.
The WA set out that a joint committee would thrash out the remaining details during the transition period.
UK officials insist that process is continuing smoothly.
However, the hope was that many of the potential problems would be rendered moot by a wider trade pact.
However, with that looking less likely, the government argues that legislation is needed in case the details are not settled by December 31.
Otherwise, they say, the integrity of the UK and the Peace Process might be put at risk – something that was explicitly stated in the Agreement should not happen.
The Internal Markets Bill, and later the Finance Bill, will therefore describe the types of goods that should be classed as ‘at risk’, and make clear state aid rules do not apply in NI.
This will almost certainly not be accepted by the EU, as they would regard it as circumventing the joint committee and a breach of the WA.
‘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,’ he said.
‘So there is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. 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.’
The UK is planning legislation that could impact on key parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, by unilaterally fixing details of the Northern Ireland protocol that the EU believes should be agreed at a joint committee.
Sections of the Internal Market bill, due to be published on Wednesday, are expected to ‘eliminate the legal force’ of the Brexit Bill passed last October.
It would come into force if no settlement has been reached through the joint committee by December 31, when the ‘standstill’ transition period is due to end.
That would potentially see Britain renege on promises on contentious areas such as state aid and Northern Ireland customs, the Financial Times reported.
It would be seen by the EU as an act of bad faith and could further damage hopes of a deal. The government has an 80-strong majority and could almost certainly force the change through Parliament even if there was a significant Tory rebellion.
Speaking on French radio today, Mr Barnier said he would be seeking clarification about the UK’s plans.
He said honouring Withdrawal Agreement was “a pre-condition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected”.
Mr Barnier admitted he was ‘worried’ about the fate of the talks between the two sides.
However, Mr Eustice insisted it had always been the case that ‘finer points’ of the divorce agreement still needed to be resolved.
‘The deal was always very clear, it had the Northern Ireland protocol, it set out the arrangements that would prevent the need for any checks along the Northern Ireland border but there were also one or two finer points of detail that still had to be resolved,’ he said.
‘Michael Gove is leading on that for us and they’ve been working through some of these very technical issues.
‘All we’re really saying is that once that process is concluded there may still be one or two loose ends and we just need the ability to give people the certainty they need to legislate to give that clarity – that’s all this is about.’
The row come ahead of crunch talks in London tomorrow between UK chief negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier.
Lord Frost yesterday vowed he would not ‘blink’ in the face of EU demands to accept continuing Brussels oversight of key areas of British law.
He urged Mr Barnier to ‘take our position seriously’ and act now to salvage talks. Lord Frost said the UK was not willing to be a ‘client state’ of Brussels in any circumstances, adding: ‘We are not going to compromise on the fundamentals of having control of our own laws.’
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon branded Mr Johnson a ‘charlatan’ over the idea of changing the Withdrawal Agreement
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.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon branded Mr Johnson a ‘charlatan’ over the idea of changing the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘If true, this means repudiation by UK govt of a Treaty freely negotiated by it, & described by PM in GE as an ‘oven ready’ deal,’ she tweeted.
‘This will significantly increase likelihood of no deal, and the resulting damage to the economy will be entirely Tory inflicted. What charlatans.’
Pressed on whether the UK was facing medicine shortages if there is not a trade deal, Health Secretary Matt Hancock told LBC radio: ‘I am comfortable that we have done the work that is needed.’
Yesterday Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said the negotiations were facing a ‘moment of reckoning’ this week – and warned that thousands of jobs across the EU would be put at risk unless Brussels relented.
Mr Raab said there would be a ‘significant downside’ for the economies of EU member states if there was no trade deal, with exports of cars and other goods likely to be hit.
The Department for International Trade will today launch an advertising campaign to warn EU businesses they must prepare for the changes that will come when the Brexit transition period finishes at the end of the year.
Trade talks have been deadlocked for weeks over the EU’s demands on fishing and the so-called ‘level playing field’.
Brussels wants EU trawlers to be guaranteed their current access to Britain’s fishing grounds for ever. Mr Raab told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show that this was unacceptable, adding: ‘Having seen UK fisheries and the fishing industry pretty much decimated as a result of EU membership, the EU’s argument is we should keep control of access to our own fisheries permanently low. That can’t be right.’
An even bigger sticking point is the EU’s insistence that Britain continues to follow EU laws after Brexit in order to guarantee a ‘level playing field’ for continental firms.
Talks are currently stalled over Mr Barnier’s demand to see details of the UK’s new state aid regime before moving on to other areas of negotiation. State aid is the system of rules that cover government support and subsidies for struggling industries.
The Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab (pictured) said the negotiations were facing a ‘moment of reckoning’ this week
Mr Raab said the EU could not ‘credibly be worried’ that the current Conservative administration was likely to push for heavier subsidies than some existing member states. But he said it was a ‘point of principle’ that the UK should set its own rules.
A government source last night added: ‘It is a question of where decisions are made. We had a vote in this country to take back control and we are not going back on that.’ The Prime Minister today stresses he is seeking a simple free trade deal along the lines of the one negotiated between the EU and Canada.
He adds: ‘If the EU are ready to rethink their current positions and agree this, I will be delighted. But we cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get it.’
Some senior ministers are privately concerned that the UK is not ready to cope with the impact of leaving the EU without a trade deal at the end of this year.
It would leave the UK trading on World Trade Organisation terms, with tariffs on some goods in both directions. Hauliers have warned of disruption to supply lines if there is no agreement on border controls.
A pro-EU protester holds a large homemade sign about the Brexit Irish border issue during People’s Vote march in 2018
But Eurosceptics have long complained that the terms of the Northern Ireland deal are unacceptable and risk undermining the Union by creating a trade border in the Irish Sea.
A Brussels insider told the FT the move would ‘clearly and consciously’ undermine the agreement on Northern Ireland created to avoid a hard border with the Republic.
Last week, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned ‘a precise implementation of the withdrawal agreement’ was vital for the success of the trade talks.
‘It is a very blunt instrument,’ the insider told the FT. ‘The bill will explicitly say the government reserves the right to set its own regime, directly setting up UK law in opposition with obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and in full cognisance that this will breach international law.’
A government spokesman said it was ‘working hard to resolve outstanding issues’ with the Northern Ireland protocol.
He added: ‘As a responsible government, we are considering fallback options in the event this is not achieved to ensure the communities of Northern Ireland are protected.’ Under the withdrawal agreement, the UK must tell Brussels of state aid decisions that would affect Northern Ireland.
It must also make businesses in the province file customs paperwork when sending goods into the rest of the UK.
But clauses in the internal market bill to be debuted this week will soon force the UK courts to follow UK law rather than the agreed deal with the, weakening the current protocol in the agreement.
Key dates in the road to Britain leaving the EU: Four years of Brexit chaos
February 20, 2016: David Cameron announces the date for the referendum on whether to leave the EU.
June 23, 2016: The UK votes to leave the EU.
July 13, 2016: Theresa May becomes PM after seeing off challenges from Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.
March 29, 2017: Mrs May formally notifies the EU that the UK is triggering the Article 50 process for leaving the bloc.
June 8, 2017: The Tories lose their majority in the snap election called by Mrs May in a bid to strengthen her hand on Brexit. Mrs May manages to stay in power propped up by the DUP.
November 2018: Mrs May finally strikes a Withdrawal Agreement with the EU, and it is approved by Cabinet – although Esther McVey and Dominic Raab resign.
December 2018: Mrs May sees off a vote of no confidence in her leadership triggered by Tory MP furious about her Brexit deal.
January 15-16, 2019: Mrs May loses first Commons vote on her Brexit deal by a massive 230 votes. But she sees off a Labour vote of no confidence in the government.
March 12, 2019: Despite tweaks following talks with the EU, Mrs May’s deal is defeated for a second time by 149 votes.
March 29, 2019: Mrs May’s deal is defeated for a third time by a margin of 58 votes.
May 24, 2019: Mrs May announces she will resign on June 7, triggering a Tory leadership contest.
July 23-24, 2019: Mr Johnson wins the Tory leadership, becomes PM and eventually strikes a new deal with the EU.
October 22, 2019: MPs approve Mr Johnson’s deal at second reading stage in a major breakthrough – but they vote down his proposed timetable and vow to try to amend the Bill later. The PM responds by pausing the legislation and demands an election.
October 29, 2019: MPs finally vote for an election, after the SNP and Lib Dems broke ranks to vote in favour, forcing the Labour leadership to agree.
December 12, 2019: The Tories win a stunning 80 majority after vowing to ‘get Brexit done’ during the campaign. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour records its worst performance since 1935 after he sits on the fence over Brexit, saying there should be a second referendum and he wants to remain neutral.
December 20, 2019: The new-look Commons passes Mr Johnson’s Withdrawal Bill by a majority of 124.
January 9: EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill cleared its Commons stages, and was sent to the House of Lords.
January 22: The EU Withdrawal Bill completed its progress through Parliament after the Commons overturned amendments tabled by peers, and the Lords conceded defeat.
January 24: Mr Johnson signs the ratified Withdrawal Agreement in another highly symbolic step.
January 29: MEPs approve the Withdrawal Agreement by 621 to 49. Amid emotional scenes in Brussels, some link hands to sing a final chorus of Auld Lang Syne.
11pm, January 31: The UK formally leaves the EU – although stays bound to the bloc’s rules for at least another 11 months during the transition period.
March 5: The first round of trade talks between the UK and the EU conclude.
June 30: Downing Street denies the option of extending the Brexit transition period as Mr Johnson repeatedly insists it will end on December 31, with or without a trade deal.
August 21: Michel Barnier says talks have actually gone ‘backwards’ after months of negotiating deadlock as both sides concede a deal appears unlikely.