UK raises stakes in threat to break Brexit deal
The British government dramatically escalated a fight with the European Union (EU) on Tuesday by saying it will pass a law to scrap parts of the trade treaty signed by the two sides less than two years ago.
Britain says its move to single-handedly change the legally binding treaty – an apparent breach of international law – is an insurance policy in case it can’t reach agreement with the bloc to end a long-running dispute over post-Brexit trade rules.
“Our preference is to reach a negotiated outcome with the EU,” Foreign Secretary Liz Truss said.
The announcement drew a sharp response from the EU, which has long accused Prime Minister Boris Johnson of trying to wriggle out of a deal that his government negotiated and signed as part of the UK’s exit in 2020. The spat raises the chances of a trade war between Britain and the 27-nation bloc that is – even after Brexit – its major economic partner.
“Unilateral actions contradicting an international agreement are not acceptable,” said EU Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič, the bloc’s top Brexit official.
He said the EU “will need to respond with all measures at its disposal” if the UK goes ahead with the bill.
Truss told lawmakers in the House of Commons that the move “is consistent with our obligations in international law”.
She said the bill will be published in the coming weeks, and she hopes to keep up talks with the bloc in the meantime.
Britain’s Conservative government says post-Brexit trade rules are hurting the economy and undermining peace in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK that shares a border with an EU member state.
When Britain left the bloc and its borderless free-trade zone, a deal was agreed to keep the Irish land border free of customs posts and other checks, because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Instead, to protect the EU’s single market, there are checks on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The arrangement is opposed by British unionists in Northern Ireland, who say the new checks have put a burden on businesses and frayed the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK by creating a customs border in the Irish Sea.
The Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland’s biggest unionist party, is blocking the formation of a power-sharing regional government in Belfast, which should have been formed after the election this month, until the customs checks are scrapped.
Like the DUP, the British government argues that the trade regulations, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are destabilising a peace agreement that relies on support from both Protestant unionist and Catholic nationalist communities.
While the DUP wants the protocol scrapped, most other parties in Northern Ireland want to keep it, with tweaks to ease the burden on businesses.
Johnson says his government wants to fix the protocol rather than rip it up. The UK says technology and trusted-trader programs could be used to to create a check-free “green lane” for goods destined for Northern Ireland that are at little risk of entering the EU.
The British government hopes its threat of legislation – which would take months to pass through Parliament – will increase pressure on the EU to compromise.