Brexit: EU to refuse trade deal if Boris Johnson overrides withdrawal agreement, says commissioner

Warning comes as prime minister offers concession to Tory critics of law-breaking bill

Andrew Woodcock
Political Editor
Thursday 17 September 2020 10:15 BST
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis refuses to commit UK to abiding by rulings of Brexit arbitration panel

The UK will not get a free trade agreement with Brussels if it fails to uphold the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the EU’s trade commissioner has said.

Valdis Dombrovskis said that Boris Johnson’s government will have to “correct” its position before negotiations on political and economic relations can continue.

The commissioner’s comments, in an interview with German newspaper Welt, signal a tougher EU response to Mr Johnson’s controversial UK Internal Market Bill as he tries to force it through parliament.

The prime minister last night made a minor climbdown to buy off opposition from Tory backbenchers in the House of Commons, introducing an amendment to require any future breach of the withdrawal agreement to be approved in advance in a vote by MPs.

But this is thought unlikely to ease concerns in Brussels, which is threatening legal action over the provisions in the bill and upcoming finance legislation allowing the UK to waive paperwork and tariffs on goods passing between Northern Ireland and the British mainland and withhold information on state subsidies in contravention of the divorce agreement negotiated and signed by Mr Johnson.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis has confirmed that the bill would break international law “in a limited and specific way” and on Wednesday refused to commit the UK to respecting the rulings of a dispute arbitration panel also agreed in last year’s withdrawal deal.

Asked if it was possible for the EU to negotiate with an administration which had indicated it may not uphold its side of any deal, Mr Dombrovskis said: “The behaviour of the British government is causing us concerns.

“If the UK does not comply with the withdrawal agreement, then there is no longer any basis for a free trade treaty between the EU and the UK.

“The British government must correct this before we continue negotiating on our political and economic relations.”

The development came as justice secretary Robert Buckland came under pressure to follow Scotland’s advocate general Lord Keen by resigning from the government in protest at the bill.

Former Conservative attorney general Dominic Grieve said that Mr Buckland and his successor as AG Suella Braverman should resign rather than support legislation which breaks International law.

While Ms Braverman seemed to be an “enthusiastic endorser of this completely warped view of international law”, the justice secretary - who is also Lord Chancellor - was in an untenable position, Mr Grieve told The Guardian.

“He takes an oath of office to uphold or protect the rule of law,” said the former attorney general. “The rule of law includes international law.

“Although I feel some sympathy for ex-colleagues because of the position they have been put in, I think his position is untenable.

“He should, I’m afraid, have resigned on the day the bill was published. He may have decided to stay and try and moderate (the government’s position). I can understand that from a moral position but I think that’s wrong.”

Mr Buckland has indicated that he might resign his post if the bill was used to break the law in an “unacceptable and egregious way” and “in a way that cannot be fudged”, but insists that the government is not yet at that stage.

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