The European Union on Thursday demanded that the United Kingdom immediately rewrite a new Brexit bill that would change parts of a divorce agreement it signed with the E.U. last year — threatening legal action if the outgoing member does not comply.
European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic met with U.K. Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove for crisis talks after the U.K. government proposed a new Internal Market Bill, which would allow ministers to “disapply” certain rules related to Northern Ireland agreed to in last year’s Withdrawal Agreement.
The U.K. formally left the bloc in January, after securing that agreement with E.U. officials, and has been in a transition period throughout 2020 as U.K. and E.U. negotiators try to thrash out a free trade agreement. The U.K. government has expressed frustration at the lack of movement, and this week Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the U.K. would end negotiations if there was no agreement by mid-October.
It has now introduced the Internal Market Bill, which would allow ministers to change rules related to checks on goods from Northern Ireland so it has “unfettered” access to Great Britain even if those changes are incompatible with international law. It has led to fears in Brussels and in Washington that the bill would override the Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland Protocol, which set out an arrangement to avoid a hard land border between Ireland (an E.U. member) and Northern Ireland, and as a result the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
According to a statement by the E.U., Sefcovic “called on the UK government to withdraw these measures from the draft Bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month”
He also stated that the bill “would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law” and threatened potential legal action.
“He reminded the UK government that the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using,” the Commission warned.
Sefcovic’s position was buoyed by a statement from U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who on Wednesday warned the U.K. there would be “no chance” of a U.S.-U.K. free trade deal if the U.K. undermined the Good Friday Agreement.
Johnson, meanwhile, has argued that the new bill would protect the Good Friday Agreement and the U.K. from “irrational” interpretations from Brussels.
“My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK, but also to protect the Northern Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,” he said in the House of Commons on Wednesday.
“To do that, we need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol which could lead to a border down the Irish sea in a way that I believe, and I think members around the House believe, would be prejudicial to the interests of the Good Friday Agreement and prejudicial to the interests of peace in our country.”