LONDON (Reuters) – Britain plunged Brexit trade talks into crisis on Wednesday by explicitly acknowledging that it could break international law by ignoring some parts of its European Union divorce treaty, prompting a rapid rebuke from the EU’s chief executive.
Brushing aside warnings from Brussels that it was scuppering any trade deal, London said in the proposed legislation that it would ignore parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, which was only signed in January.
The Internal Market Bill spells out that certain provisions are “to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law”.
Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, promptly tweeted that she was “very concerned”.
“This would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations,” she said. The Latin phrase, meaning “agreements must be kept”, is a basic principle of international law.
John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, said that “if we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained”.
The bill’s publication, on the day the EU’s chief negotiator arrived in London for a new round of trade talks, suggested to some that Prime Minister Boris Johnson might be trying to goad the bloc into storming out of those negotiations.
But EU sources told Reuters they would not seek a suspension. One said this “would only play into the UK game”.
Johnson told parliament the bill was “a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations” of the Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol that could threaten peace in the British province.
The bill, if approved, would give ministers the power to ignore parts of that protocol by modifying the form of export declarations and other exit procedures.
But the list of specific agreements that might be ignored also includes “any other provision of the EU Withdrawal Agreement” and “any other EU law or international law”.
The bill says Britain may ‘disapply’ provisions including one that relates to Northern Ireland and state aid. Johnson’s team see state aid as crucial for ensuring they can incubate new global technology firms and help “level up” parts of Britain.
Johnson’s spokesman said the EU divorce deal had been “agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances”. Opponents accused Johnson of blatant hypocrisy after he promised before December’s election that he had an “oven-ready deal”.
Britain quit the EU in January but has remained part of its single market, largely free of trade barriers, under an agreement that expires in December. It says that, if it cannot negotiate a favourable trade deal to take effect from Jan. 1, it will simply walk away.
The agreement calls for border-free trade on the island of Ireland, which the EU says should in some cases require checks on goods passing between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. But Johnson has ruled out requiring export declarations or tariffs on such goods.
Some fear that a failure to agree on border arrangements could jeopardise the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which largely ended three decades of political and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin spoke to Johnson to express his concerns “in forthright terms” while his deputy Leo Varadkar called the bill a “kamikaze” threat that had backfired.
Asked how he could expect Britons to obey the law if his government was willing to undermine it, Johnson said: “We expect everybody in this country to obey the law.”
(Additional reporting by Michelle Adair and Madeline Chambers in Berlin and Conor Humphries in Dublin; Writing by Michael Holden and Elizabeth Piper; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Kevin Liffey)