See EU in court: PM stands firm over Brussels legal threat

10 September 2020, 22:09 | Updated: 11 September 2020, 08:02

Boris Johnson (left) and EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier
Boris Johnson (left) and EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The UK has stood firm in the face of legal threats from the EU, plunging Brexit talks into crisis amid a furious row over amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement.

Just months before Britain’s transition period with the EU ends, a bust-up has broken out over the Internal Market Bill, raising the possibility of a no-deal Brexit.

Brussels has told the PM he has until the end of the month to scrap the amendments, saying the EU will “not be shy” in taking the matter to court.

Read more: Senior Tory MP warns Boris to be "more mindful" over Brexit divorce deal

At a stormy meeting in London, European Commission vice president Maroš Šefčovič gave the UK until the end of the month to drop the controversial provisions in the Internal Market Bill or face the potential collapse of talks on a free trade agreement.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Bill, which modifies the Brexit agreement signed in January, would "ensure the integrity of the UK internal market".

Business minister Nadhim Zahawi told LBC this morning: “There were already ambiguities in the agreement that actually allowed for a joint committee to sort them out, to go through them and make sure they work.

“We absolutely are committed to that process, we are going to implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol.

"It is not if we implement it, it is how we implement it.”

Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove - who co-chairs a joint committee on the Withdrawal Agreement with Mr Šefčovič - said the Government was not prepared to back down.

"I explained to vice president Šefčovič that we could not and would not do that," he told reporters following the meeting.

"I made it perfectly clear to vice president Šefčovič that we would not be withdrawing this legislation. He understood that. Of course he regretted it."

Following the meeting, the European Commission hit back, saying they had reminded the UK government that "the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using".

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said "significant differences" remain following the latest round of talks.

In a statement he said that while the EU had shown "flexibility" the UK "has not engaged in a reciprocal way on fundamental EU principles and interests".

"The UK is refusing to include indispensable guarantees of fair competition in our future agreement, while requesting free access to our market," he said.

Some senior Conservatives have expressed concern about the Government's plans to override key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Sir Bernard Jenkin, the leader of the European Research Group, said the admission by ministers that provisions in the Internal Market Bill breached international law had been "very surprising".

He told LBC: "The Prime Minister should be more mindful of the reputational damage of playing such hardball when there's really no consensus from the country to go about breaking international agreements.”

But Brexiteer Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen backed Boris, tweeting: “The whole point of being an independent country is that our Parliament is sovereign & decides our laws, upheld by a ruling in the Supreme Court. Now is the time to back Boris, back Britain, back Brexit & see off the EU despots who have misjudged the UKs resolve time & time again.”

The emergency talks were called after ministers admitted on Tuesday that provisions in the Bill to enable the Government to change elements of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland were in breach of international law.

In a statement, the EU said that “the Vice-President stated, in no uncertain terms, that the timely and full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Protocol on Ireland / Northern Ireland – which Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his government agreed to, and which the UK Houses of Parliament ratified, less than a year ago – is a legal obligation.”

They added: "The European Union 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.”

Lord Frost, Chief Negotiator, said after the negotiations: “We have just completed our eighth round of negotiations with the EU. We covered all issues in some detail, including the most difficult ones.

“These were useful exchanges. However, a number of challenging areas remain and the divergences on some are still significant.

“We have been consistently clear from the start of this process about the basis on which agreement is possible between us. Those fundamentals remain.

“We have engaged in discussions in all areas. We have consistently made proposals which provide for open and fair competition, on the basis of high standards, in a way which is appropriate to a modern free trade agreement between sovereign and autonomous equals.

“We remain committed to working hard to reach agreement by the middle of October, as the Prime Minister set out earlier this week.

“We have agreed to meet again, as planned, in Brussels next week to continue discussions.”