Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis today admitted Boris Johnson’s plans to tear up part of the Brexit divorce deal will breach international law.
Mr Lewis sparked an instant backlash as he said the Prime Minister’s proposals to override the Withdrawal Agreement will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.
Labour described the admission as ‘absolutely astonishing’ while senior Tory MP Sir Bob Neill said ‘adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable’.
Theresa May had earlier warned Mr Johnson the UK will no longer be trusted by other countries to honour international agreements if he goes ahead with plans to row back on the deal agreed last year.
It came after Sir Jonathan Jones quit as Treasury Solicitor and Head of the Government Legal Profession, reportedly over Mr Johnson’s plans to depart from parts of the accord struck with Brussels which relate to the Northern Ireland border protocol.
Meanwhile, US politicians warned there will be no trade deal done between Washington and London if the Government’s actions on Brexit undermine the Good Friday Agreement.
Brexit trade talks between the UK and EU are on the brink of collapse after Mr Johnson warned the ‘contradictory’ terms of Britain’s split from Brussels must be overhauled.
The EU’s top negotiator Michel Barnier is arriving in London today for a make-or-break round of trade negotiations amid mounting gloom about the prospects of a breakthrough.
The standoff turned nasty yesterday as Brussels voiced fury at UK threats to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out last year.
Legislation would unilaterally ‘clarify’ key parts of the settlement, including customs rules for Northern Ireland, that the EU insists should be resolved by a joint committee.
Sir Jonathan Jones today resigned as the boss of the Government’s legal department, reportedly over Boris Johnson’s plans to override the Withdrawal Agreement
Mr Lewis admitted in the House of Commons this afternoon that the UK’s proposals will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.
Responding to a question from Tory MP Sir Bob Neill, Mr Lewis said: ‘I would say to [Sir Bob] that yes this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.
‘We are taking the power to dis-apply the EU concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in a certain, very tightly defined circumstances.’
He added that ‘there are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change’.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said the admission was ‘absolutely astonishing’ and it ‘this seriously undermines our authority on the international stage’.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer warned the Government not to ‘reopen old wounds’ by doing something ‘wrong’ as he urged ministers to focus on striking a trade deal and then concentrate on ‘defeating this virus’.
Sir Bob later said on Twitter: ‘Any breach, or potential breach, of the international legal obligations we have entered into is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s in a ‘specific’ or ‘limited way’. Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable.’
Fellow Tory MP Sir Roger Gale echoed a similar sentiment as he said ‘seeking to re-negotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol will be regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith’.
Sir Roger said the UK must not ‘undermine our international credibility’ and status as an ‘honourable country’.
Conservative MP and former minister George Freeman said ‘that sound you hear’ is the ‘Supreme Court preparing to remind ministers that intentionally breaking the law – even in a very specific and limited way – is, well, unlawful’.
Lib Dem leader Sir Ed Davey said breaking international law ‘will do untold damage to our reputation abroad’.
Mrs May had earlier told the Commons that the Government’s approach risked damaging the UK’s global reputation.
She said: ‘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?’
Guy Verhofstadt, the MEP and former chairman of the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinating group, said Mr Lewis’s comments were ‘astonishing’ and quoted Margaret Thatcher: ‘Britain does not renounce Treaties. Indeed, to do so would damage our own integrity as well as international relations.’
Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, yesterday warned the UK against any move which would breach its international obligations.
‘I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership,’ she tweeted.
Whitehall was rocked this morning by the surprise resignation of Sir Jonathan from his role as the head of the Government’s legal department.
Downing Street confirmed his resignation but provided no reasons for his decision to step down.
However, reports suggest Sir Jonathan chose to walk away because of the PM’s decision to try to override parts of the original Brexit divorce accord.
The Financial Times reported that the top lawyer was ‘very unhappy’ about the stance taken by Mr Johnson. He becomes the sixth senior civil servant to quit Whitehall this year amid an ongoing war between the civil service and Number 10.
Labour said the resignation of Sir Jonathan suggested ‘there must be something very rotten about this Government’.
Sir Jonathan’s decision to quit came after ministers tried to downplay the significance of Mr Johnson’s plans, insisting it amounted to tying up ‘loose ends’.
The decision to try to row back on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement has spooked some politicians in the US.
Brendan Boyle, a Democratic member of the US House of Representatives, said any move by the UK which could undermine the peace process in Northern Ireland would scupper any hopes of a trans-Atlantic trade deal.
He said: ‘If the UK in leaving the European Union, which is fully their right to do, if the UK does it in such a way that it violates the Good Friday Agreement there will be no US UK free trade agreement. Period.
‘So the UK needs to understand there will be consequences that stretch well beyond trust dealings with the EU on this matter.
The PM’s chief negotiator Lord Frost increased the temperature again today, demanding ‘more realism’ from the EU that the UK was now a sovereign country.
In a message kicking off the latest round of discussions, the peer said the two sides ‘can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground’ and progress on the key stumbling points – fishing rights and the UK obeying EU rules – was essential this week if a deal was to be done in time for the end of the transition period in January.
Medical leaders have also cautioned that a combination of a chaotic change in trade arrangements and resurgent coronavirus this winter could ‘overwhelm’ the health service.
Mr Johnson sent an ultimatum to the EU that he will ‘not back down’ yesterday, in another effort to convince the bloc he is not bluffing about reverting to basic trading arrangements at the end of the transition period.
Leaked diplomatic cables showed growing unease among European officials over the UK’s hardline stance, with suspicions that Mr Johnson is holding off on a compromise until the last minute to secure the best possible terms.
There is disquiet among some senior Conservatives over ‘dangerous’ plans to revisit the Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK government is pushing through legislation that could effectively override parts of the divorce deal.
The laws will unilaterally resolve crucial issues in the Northern Ireland protocol – including deciding what goods require customs checks between mainland Britain and the province.
Ministers say that the changes are essential to avoid ‘confusion’ if there is no settlement by the end of the transition period in December.
However, Brussels insists that under the divorce deal those details can only be finalised by a joint committee made up of members from both sides.
The One Nation group of moderate Tory MPs, which met last night, is said to be alarmed by the strategy, according to the Times.
One of the MPs said: ‘This would clearly have some real issues in terms of our status as a country. If we breach an international agreement it will affect our ability to do deals with others. The ramifications of doing this are serious.’
But a No10 source said: ‘The protocol is contradictory in some respects – it talks about protecting the EU single market but also giving Northern Ireland unfettered access to the UK market. You can’t have both.
‘Without a trade deal, all goods passing from the mainland to Northern Ireland would be subject to tariffs, because they would be classed as being ‘at risk’ of being sold on to the EU market.
‘Even though traders could later claim back the money by proving the goods didn’t leave the UK, the administrative costs would be considerable.’
Downing Street has sought to increase pressure on the bloc in recent weeks, and it appears to have provoked a reaction, according to messages sent to EU capitals from Brussels, seen by the Guardian.
Michel Barnier (right) is arriving in London for a make-or-break round of trade negotiations with the UK’s David Frost (left in Downing Street) amid mounting gloom about the prospects of a breakthrough
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned there could be no backtracking by the UK on its previous commitments if it wanted to reach a free trade agreement
EU commission president Ursula von der Leyen delivered a thinly-veiled warning to the UK about breaking ‘international law’
Mr Johnson’s apparent refusal to make compromises on major issues such as fisheries and state aid in order to gain an eleventh-hour ‘trade-off’ has been described as ‘concerning’ by EU chiefs, who say details won’t simply be ironed out over a phone call.
There are also fears from Brussels that Home Secretary Priti Patel is opening her own separate talks on internal security as she prepares to meet ministers from the EU’s five biggest states later this month.
European Commission leaders have urged diplomats not to agree to any proposals made in those discussions which could potentially affect the wider negotiations.
Speaking ahead of the latest round of talks, Lord Frost said: ‘Today, I will sit down with Michel Barnier and drive home our clear message that we must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time.
‘We have now been talking for six months and can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground.
‘We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country.’
He said the UK’s position derives from the ‘fundamentals of being a sovereign state’ and called for the EU to ‘fully recognise this reality’.
‘If they can’t do that in the very limited time, we have left then we will be trading on terms like those the EU has with Australia, and we are ramping up our preparations for the end of the year,’ Lord Frost added.
The Internal Market Bill to be tabled on Wednesday will ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid rules, which will continue to apply in Northern Ireland, will not apply in the rest of the UK.
In addition, an amendment to the Finance Bill will give ministers the power to designate which goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are considered ‘at risk’ of entering the EU single market and are therefore liable to EU tariffs.
The spat comes after Mr Johnson declared 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.