The European Union has branded draft UK legislation a “clear breach” of the Brexit withdrawal deal and demanded it be scrapped by the end of the month.
The demand – accompanied by a threat of legal action and a suggestion Brexit trade talks could be halted if the UK does not back down – followed emergency talks between senior EU and UK figures on Thursday.
It came after the UK government tabled legislation to alter key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement that Prime Minister Boris Johnson signed with Brussels earlier this year.
The move has whipped up a storm of anger both from the EU and at home – including from leading Conservatives.
Amid the row, European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic travelled to London on Thursday to meet with UK cabinet minister Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster.
Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove that if the proposed UK Internal Market Bill were to be passed “it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law”.
He added that by putting forward the bill, which was published on Wednesday, the UK had seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK.
“It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust,” the European Commission said in a statement after the meeting.
Mr Sefcovic told Mr Gove that the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement – including its provisions for the Irish border – was a “legal obligation” and that the EU “expects the letter and spirit of this agreement to be fully respected”.
Violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would “break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations” on a UK-EU trade deal, Mr Sefcovic added.
He also warned the EU “will not be shy” in using “a number of mechanisms and legal remedies” that are contained in the Withdrawal Agreement to address violations.
Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney thanked Mr Sefcovic for his “important statement”.
The meeting between Mr Sefcovic and Mr Gove took place at the same time as EU and UK officials were concluding the eighth round of negotiations on the future UK-EU relationship, which have so far made little progress.
Without a trade deal by the end of this year – when the Brexit transition period ends – the UK will likely have to trade with the EU on World Trade Organisation terms from next year.
The pound has been under pressure amid the latest tensions over Brexit and on Thursday dipped to its lowest level against the euro since March, at just over €1.08.
It also slipped against the dollar, dipping below $1.29.
In tabling the UK Internal Market Bill, the prime minister has argued it is necessary to preserve unfettered trade within the UK and prevent a border between Britain and Northern Ireland.
But senior Conservatives – including three former Tory leaders – have criticised the plans.
Earlier on Thursday, Lord Michael Howard accused the government of damaging the UK’s “reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law”.
“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he told the House of Lords.
French foreign minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, when the pair met to discuss Iran on Thursday, that a breach by the UK of the Withdrawal Agreement would be “unacceptable”.
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