EU leaders vow to block Brexit trade deal if Withdrawal Agreement altered

11 September 2020, 18:02 | Updated: 11 September 2020, 18:51

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier. Picture: PA

By Ewan Somerville

European leaders have issued a defiant statement vowing to block a UK-EU trade deal if there is any breach of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. 

Leaders in the European Parliament and its UK coordination group said Boris Johnson's UK Internal Market Bill is a "serious and unacceptable breach of international law" which puts the trade talks at risk of collapse.

The treaty must be implemented in full or there will be no ratification, said the group, representing a majority of MEPs.

It comes as ministers are under mounting pressure to explain how the Government's plans to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement are consistent with the UK's obligations under international law.

Hopes of a trade deal with Brussels hang in the balance after Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted on Tuesday that provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill represented a "specific and limited" breach of international law.

MEPs warned in a statement on Friday evening: "Should the UK authorities breach - or threaten to breach - the Withdrawal Agreement, through the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill in its current form or in any other way, the European Parliament will under no circumstances ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK."

In a letter to Justice Secretary Robert Buckland, the House of Lords Constitution Committee said that he had a particular responsibility to ensure the UK met its international treaty obligations having taken an oath as Lord Chancellor to uphold the rule of law.

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"We know how seriously you take your oath of office and responsibility to uphold the rule of law and when you appeared before the committee in July you spoke passionately on the subject," the committee said.

"Therefore, we should be grateful for a statement from you on how you believe the UK Internal Market Bill complies with international law."

Business leaders and Labour have stepped up calls for the Governemnt to focus on sealing a post-Brexit free trade deal after a deal was struck with Japan. 

International Trade Secretary Liz Truss said the UK-Japan Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement, expected to boost trade with Japan by £15.2 billion, was a "historic moment" for the two countries which will bring "new wins" for British businesses.

But Labour said it was important to put the deal in "perspective", stressing that even though the agreement was "welcome", the net benefit would amount to just 0.07% of GDP.

The British Chambers of Commerce (BCC) said the deal was "undoubtedly a cause for celebration" but that securing a free trade agreement with the EU "remains critical to the future of businesses in the UK".

BCC director-general Adam Marshall added: "We urge ministers to redouble their efforts to reach a comprehensive partnership with our largest trading partner at a crucial time in the negotiations."

A legal opinion circulated to MPs by the Attorney General Suella Braverman on Thursday argued that Parliament was sovereign in domestic law and was entitled to pass legislation which breached the UK's treaty obligations.

However the House of Lords Constitution Committee said measures in the Bill to give ministers powers which deviated from provisions in an internationally binding treaty could lead to the whole Withdrawal Agreement "unravelling" with "far-reaching consequences".

"Any breach of international law threatens to undermine confidence in future treaty commitments made by the UK Government, and increases the likelihood that the governments of other countries will breach their international law obligations," it said.

"Those practical consequences are of great significance. The proposed course of action also appears to be in tension with the constitutional principle of the rule of law."

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said that Mr Buckland would respond to the letter "in due course".