The Brexit negotiations hit a new low as the most senior EU leaders in Brussels said they had lost trust in Boris Johnson over his plans to break international law and breach a painstakingly negotiated agreement on Northern Ireland.
Within minutes of the government tabling the internal market bill, the clauses of which negate key aspects of the withdrawal agreement signed by the prime minister last year, both the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, and the president of the European council, Charles Michel, issued condemnatory statements.
“Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the withdrawal Agreement,” Von der Leyen tweeted. “This would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations.”
Michel, a former Belgian prime minister who chairs the summits of EU heads of state and government, described the decision by Downing Street as “unacceptable”, raising concerns about the future of the talks being staged in London between the UK’s negotiator, David Frost, and his EU counterpart, Michel Barnier.
“The withdrawal agreement was concluded and ratified by both sides, it has to be applied in full,” Michel tweeted. “Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship.”
France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said his government expected Downing Street to live up to its legal commitments. “Compliance with the withdrawal agreement is not negotiable. Commitments have been made, they must be implemented,” he said.
“Among friends and allies, we must keep our word and respect the law. The European Union is committed to it, we expect it from the United Kingdom.”
The comments from Brussels and Paris raise concerns that the row will have a direct impact on the trade and security negotiations, with just five weeks to go before Johnson has said he needs a deal to be agreed.
The EU has repeatedly insisted that full implementation of the withdrawal agreement is a precondition for any agreement on a dealwith the UK on the trading and security arrangements when the current transition period ends on 31 December.
With tensions high, the commission’s vice-president Maroš Šefčovič said he had sought an extraordinary meeting of the joint committee he chairs with Michael Gove, the chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, “as soon as possible” to force the UK to respond to EU concerns over the internal market bill.
Šefčovič said: “I expressed our strong concerns and sought strong assurances that the UK will fully and timely comply with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.”
Gove is said to have “explained the limited and reasonable steps being introduced to create a safety net that removes any ambiguity and ensures that the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland”, but Šefčovič wants a face-to-face meeting to allow the UK to elaborate its position.
Gove said he hoped the committee discussions would reach “a satisfactory conclusion”.
The latest clash came as a row erupted over UK food standards. UK government sources claim “veiled threats” were made during recent negotiations not to licence UK food manufacturers for imports of to the bloc.
If the UK was not on the “third country list” of states whose food standards were high enough to be fit for import into the EU it would cause huge problems in Northern Ireland, the sources said.
According to the Sun, Brussels threatened to disrupt movement of food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland as part of negotiations.
It is claimed by the UK that Barnier had sought to leverage the European commission’s power to withhold approval of the UK’s regime during the trade and security talks, and that this had prompted the prime minister to look for ways to undermine the withdrawal agreement through the internal market bill.
The claim has been branded “fake news” by one senior MEP amid growing outrage over the prime minister’s plans to renege on the withdrawal agreement.
Nathalie Loiseau, a former French minister for EU affairs, who sits on a committee of MEPs coordinating the European parliament’s position on trade talks with the UK, said she feared Brexiters were looking for a reason to blow up the current talks. “Do you want us to lose patience and slam the door and leave?” she asked.
The UK was expected to use the internal market bill to redefine the Northern Ireland protocol rules on state aid. It objects to elements of the protocol that would require London to notify Brussels of any subsidies it provides to companies in Great Britain that sell products in Northern Ireland.
It is understood the government will commit to EU state aid rules in Northern Ireland but in talks is pushing the EU to confirm that they do not apply to goods made in Britain.
On Tuesday the Northern Ireland Office said: “Specifically these provisions within the UKIM bill will ensure that businesses based in Northern Ireland have true ‘unfettered access’ to the rest of the United Kingdom, without paperwork and ensure that there is no legal confusion about the fact that, while Northern Ireland will remain subject to the EU’s state aid regime for the duration of the protocol, GB will not be subject to EU rules in this area.”
The admission by Lewis that a move to reinterpret the protocol would breach international law has led to outrage across the political spectrum and the Irish Sea.
Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Leo Varadkar, who negotiated the special Northern Ireland protocol with Johnson in a summit last October, said it was a “kamikaze” move that would backfire.
Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Loiseau said the UK’s suggestion of threats coming from Barnier was a fresh example of “disinformation and fake news related to Brexit”.
“I’m not in Boris Johnson’s head, but what’s taking place right now is fake news. You’ll remember a few days ago, this rumour that the 27 [EU member states] would withdraw their confidence in Michel Barnier, which was completely invented.
“Then you have the British prime minister saying that a no deal could be a good solution for the UK. Everybody knows it’s not real. It’s a manmade catastrophe.”
In EU capitals there is strong suspicion the UK government is seeking to present itself as willing to head for a no-deal outcome in order to achieve its main negotiating goals in the trade and security talks.
France’s trade minister, Franck Riester, told the Financial Times a free trade deal was still possible. “There’s a game of bluff going on,” he said. “We’ll try to stay calm and serene but firmly behind the line of the EU27.”