Crisis Talks Loom as EU Warns U.K. Over Trust: Brexit Update

The U.K. and the European Union are lining up emergency talks to discuss Boris Johnson’s radical plan to break international law and re-write the divorce deal he struck with the bloc last year.

The Prime Minister told Parliament he needed to act to protect Northern Ireland from any possibility of “extreme or irrational” interpretations of the exit agreement that could threaten peace in the region.

But the newly drafted British law prompted fury from Conservatives and dismay from European politicians, with talks on a future trade deal in the balance. Follow developments below, with all times U.K.

Key developments:

  • U.K. publishes Internal Market Bill, confirming it contradicts international law
  • Johnson insists he has a duty to protect peace in Northern Ireland
  • EU’s von der Leyen warns the plan damages trust, as officials demand emergency talks with Britain to resolve the crisis.
  • Johnson due to hold press conference on pandemic at 4 p.m.

Former Premier Major Warns Over Breaking Law (3:45 p.m.)

Former Prime Minister John Major warned the U.K. risks damaging its international reputation if it breaks commitments made in the EU Withdrawal Agreement.

“For generations, Britain’s word – solemnly given – has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct,” Major said in a statement. “If we lose our reputation for honoring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”

The remarks by Major, a Conservative like Johnson but an opponent of Brexit, follows criticism on Tuesday by Theresa May, the current premier’s immediate predecessor.

U.K. to Follow WTO Subsidy Rules After Year-End (3 p.m.)

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said Britain will follow the World Trade Organization’s subsidy rules after the end of the transition period.

It will also abide by any international obligations on subsidies agreed under future free trade agreements, according to a government statement published on Wednesday in response to EU requests for clarity on its plans.

The government “does not intend to return to the 1970s approach of trying to run the economy or bailing out unsustainable companies,” Sharma said.

Johnson’s Office Defends Law-Breaking Plan (2:20 p.m.)

The Brexit divorce deal has “ambiguities” and was written on the assumption that it would be clarified through future talks, Johnson’s official spokesman James Slack said on a call with reporters.

“The Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol aren’t like any other treaty,” Slack said. “It was agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances to deliver on a political decision by the British people, with the clear overriding purpose of protecting the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

Slack said the U.K. welcomes a plan for emergency talks with the EU on the issue, and will agree a date as soon as they can.

U.S. Trade Watchdog Tells U.K. to Uphold Law (2 p.m.)

The chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee -- which would act as a watchdog over any future U.K.-U.S. trade deal -- urged Johnson to “uphold the rule of law” as parts of the withdrawal agreement risk damaging the Northern Ireland peace process.

“I sincerely hope the British Government upholds the rule of law and delivers on the commitments it made during Brexit negotiations, particularly in regard to the Irish border protocols,” Rep. Richard Neal said in a statement ahead of a key meeting of Brexit negotiators later today. “Every political party on the island opposes a return of a hard border.”

Twitter Reaction to Proposed Legislation (1:50 p.m.)

Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe editor, tweets:

Anton Spisak, lead for trade and productivity policy at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, tweets: “Wow, this is as bad as it could be. This Bill puts ministers under obligation to legislate contrary to the Withdrawal Agmt and asks U.K. courts to interpret parts of the WA without relevant ECJ case law. Basically says, ‘we can do whatever we want regardless of our obligations’.

Steve Peers, professor of EU, Human Rights and World Trade Law at Essex University, has a detailed analysis here:

Michel Joins EU Criticism of Johnson Bill (1:40 p.m.)

The bashing of the bill from the European Union’s leadership continued with a warning from Council President Charles Michel about the future relationship between the two sides.

“The Withdrawal agreement was concluded and ratified by both sides, it has to be applied in full,” Michel said in a tweet. “Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship.”

SNP’s Blackford: Power-Grab Means End of U.K. (1:15 p.m.)

The leader of the Scottish National Party in London, Ian Blackford, said the Internal Market Bill represents the “end of the union” because it aims to take back powers from Scotland’s Parliament.

“To see a Westminster government that is trampling over devolution, and is giving the government in London powers over every devolved area, is something that people in Scotland are going to just be insulted by,” Blackford said in an interview clutching a copy of the bill. “This is not how governments in Edinburgh and London should be working together. This will end the union.”

VDL: Johnson Move Damages Trust (1:07 p.m.)

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she’s “very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement.”

The move “would break international law and undermines trust,” the Commission president added in a tweet.

She referred to the principle of international law that agreements must be respected, saying that “pacta sunt servanda” is the “foundation of prosperous future relations.”

U.K. Publishes Internal Market Law (12:54 p.m)

The U.K. Internal Market Bill sets out how trade in goods and services within the U.K. will happen after Britain leaves the European Union.

The legislation, published Wednesday, includes provisions that would allow ministers to over-ride parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to ensure companies there have “unfettered access” to the U.K. internal market.

It also allows the U.K. to over-ride EU state aid rules as they apply to the region.

Crucially, the government documents confirmed that parts of the legislation will apply “notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law.”

Click here to read the legislation.

EU Demands Emergency Talks (12:23 p.m.)

The European Union is demanding emergency talks with the U.K. in response to Johnson’s threat to re-write the divorce agreement. EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic on Wednesday called for a meeting of the Joint Committee that oversees the deal that Johnson signed up to last year.

The committee should convene as soon as possible “so that our U.K. partners elaborate and respond to our strong concerns on the bill,” Sefcovic told reporters in Brussels after speaking earlier in the day with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove. “We will study the bill carefully and I believe that the joint committee would be the most appropriate venue for further discussion.”

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