Senior EU official to meet Michael Gove for emergency Brexit talks

9 September 2020, 15:01 | Updated: 10 September 2020, 05:51

Ministers are planning to override parts of the Brexit bill with changes that may be "inconsistent" with it
Ministers are planning to override parts of the Brexit bill with changes that may be "inconsistent" with it. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

A senior EU official will travel to London on Thursday for an extraordinary meeting of the Joint Committee over proposed changes to the Brexit deal.

The EU Commission's vice-president for interinstitutional relations and foresight Maros Sefcovic will meet Michael Gove to discuss the controversial plan, which UK ministers have admitted will breach international law.

Eric Mamer, chief spokesman of the EU Commission, said on Twitter: "Following today's announcement by the UK, @MarosSefcovic will travel to London tomorrow to meet @michaelgove for an extraordinary meeting of the Joint Committee.

"The EU seeks clarifications from the UK on the full and timely implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement."

The controversial bill, named the Internal Market Bill, has been published after the government admitted yesterday it planned to "break international law".

No10 says the Brexit deal was signed in a rush, saying: "The withdrawal agreement and Northern Ireland protocol aren’t like any other treaty.

"It was agreed at pace at the most challenging political circumstances to deliver on a clear political decision of the British people."

The bill is intended to distribute powers being brought back from Brussels to Westminster and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

But key components may contradict the withdrawal agreement passed by parliament last year, by letting ministers hand themselves the power to determine rules on state aid and goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

The draft legislation says: "Certain provisions to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law".

Sir John Major has joined senior Tories in criticising the Government's decision to override key elements of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal.

Ministers have acknowledged that provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill, published on Wednesday, are in breach of international law.

In a statement, the former prime minister said: "For generations, Britain's word - solemnly given - has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct.

"Over the last century, as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power.

"If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained."

Asked about Sir John Major's remarks, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said: "Of course, I see it very differently.

"I see the risk that certain, I think, extreme interpretations of the treaty might place (on) the peace process in Northern Ireland, to the Good Friday Agreement.

He said "nobody wants to see a barrier down the Irish Sea", adding that it would be "very, very injurious".

Mr Johnson continued: "What we are doing is putting a safety net... to protect peace and to protect the settlement in our United Kingdom, and that is the purpose of what we are doing."

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: "The Government should consider the reputational risk that it is taking in the proposed way forward.

"But what I think people want more than anything is a deal.

"That's in the national interest, that's what the Prime Minister promised - an oven-ready good deal. He needs to deliver on that promise."

Sir Keir added: "What they are trying to do is wrong and that's why previous prime ministers are calling it out.

"But the way around this is to get a deal. That was what was promised, and I say to the Prime Minister: Deliver on your promise and then focus on the pandemic, but, if you fail to get a deal, Prime Minister, you own that failure."

Sir Keir said there were no cross-party talks going on to try and defeat the proposed legislation.

Earlier, the European Commission called for urgent talks with Britain as the Government set out its plans to override key elements of the Brexit deal signed by Boris Johnson.

Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was "very concerned" following the tabling in Parliament of the UK Internal Market Bill, which ministers have admitted will breach international law.

As talks continued in London on a post-Brexit free trade agreement, she warned such actions would "undermine trust" and called on the Prime Minister to honour his past commitments.

Ministers have argued legislation is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if the two sides are unable to agree a free trade deal before the current Brexit transition period runs out at the end of the year.

However, commission vice president Maros Sefcovic said he was seeking an urgent meeting of the joint EU-UK committee on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement to enable the British to "elaborate" on their plans.

Speaking at a news conference in Brussels, Mr Sefcovic said he had raised his concerns in a phone call on Tuesday with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove - his co-chair on the committee.

"I expressed our strong concerns and sought assurances that the UK will fully and timely comply with the Withdrawal Agreement, including the protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland," he said.

"The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation and we expect the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement will be fully respected. I think on that we have to be very, very clear."

In the Commons, Mr Johnson defended the legislation, saying it provided a "legal safety net" to protect against "extreme or irrational interpretations" of the Northern Ireland provisions of the agreement which could lead to the creation of "a border down the Irish Sea".

However, Mrs von der Leyen tweeted: "Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement. This would break international law and undermines trust.

"Pacta sunt servanda (agreements must be kept) = the foundation of prosperous future relations."