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Boris Johnson has faced a backlash by proceeding with controversial plans that would override the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed with the European Union last year, possibly breaking international law in the process. The Internal Market Bill would breach the Northern Ireland protocol of the divorce agreement that seeks to avoid a hard customs border between British-ruled Northern Ireland and EU-member the Republic of Ireland. The Prime Minister has been forced to table an amendment to the Internal Market Bill, giving MPs a vote before the Government can use powers related to Northern Ireland which would breach the treaty with Brussels.
But that tactic has been rejected by the EU, with European Commission chief spokesman Eric Mamer warning its position has not changed and still wants the offending clauses to be withdrawn from the legislation.
Now the UK Government has warned it will ask Parliament to support provisions in three clauses in the Internal Market Bill if they think the EU is “engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol”.
In a statement published on the Government’s website, Downing Street said such examples would relate to issues surrounding tariffs on goods entering the EU single market and “paperwork requirements” for goods going from Northern Ireland to the UK which would “compromise the principle of unfettered access in Article 6 of the Protocol”.
Other examples would include an insistence from the EU that its state aid provisions “should apply in GB in circumstances when there is no link or only a trivial one to commercial operations taking place in NI”, as well as a refusal to grant third country listing to UK agricultural goods for “manifestly unreasonable or poorly justified reasons”.
The Government listing reads: “HMG will ask Parliament to support the use of the provisions in Clauses 42, 43 and 45 of the UKIM Bill, and any similar subsequent provisions, only in the case of, in our view, the EU being engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“Examples of such behaviour would include: “a. insistence that GB-NI tariffs and related provision such as import VAT should be charged in ways that are not related to the real risk of goods entering the EU single market;
“b. such insistence under (a.) leading to a failure to reach agreement in the Joint Committee, with the result that the default provisions on tariffs between GB and NI apply;
“c. insistence on paperwork requirements (export declarations) for NI goods going to GB, thereby compromising the principle of “unfettered access” in Article 6 of the Protocol;
“d. insistence that the EU’s state aid provisions should apply in GB in circumstances when there is no link or only a trivial one to commercial operations taking place in NI; and
“e. refusal to grant 3rd country listing to UK agricultural goods for manifestly unreasonable or poorly justified reasons.
“HMG confirms that in parallel with the use of these provisions it would always activate appropriate formal dispute settlement mechanisms with the aim of finding a solution through this route.
“Further measures will be set out in the Finance Bill, relating to tariffs on GB-NI movements, including the same Parliamentary process that the Government has committed to for the UKIM Bill.”
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The latest development comes with the UK and EU now having just weeks left to strike a post-Brexit trade deal in time for it to be ratified by the European Parliament before the end of the transition period on December 31.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is still confident a trade deal is possible between the UK and EU, but warned the attempt from Mr Johnson to override the Withdrawal Agreement has been an “unpleasant surprise”.
She said the Internal Market Bill had “distracted very strongly” from the two sides being able to secure fresh trade terms before the transition period deadline.
Ms von der Leyen said: “Where the UK is concerned, we want an agreement, and I think the attempt to violate the Withdrawal Agreement distracted very strongly from the ongoing negotiations. This was an unpleasant surprise.
“And therefore it is time now that our British friends restore the trust in the validity of a signature under treaty, and that we keep on going, focused to negotiate because time is running out.”
In reply to another question, the EU chief said she was “still convinced” a deal with with the UK “can be done”.
The comments came as the UK confirmed “some limited progress” had been made between the UK and EU negotiation teams during informal talks in Brussels this week.
A Downing Street spokesman said: “The UK’s negotiating team had useful informal discussions with the EU this week as we seek to reach an agreement by mid-October on our future relationship.
“These covered a broad range of issues and some limited progress was made, but significant gaps remain in key areas, including fisheries and subsidies.
“We will continue to work hard to bridge those gaps in talks next week, without compromising our fundamental position of being an independent country.”
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