UK and EU hold Brexit emergency talks as tensions rise

EU and UK flags

Negotiators have hastily arranged a meeting after Britain announced plans that could violate the internationally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement. The European Union could now take legal action.

Britain and the European Union are holding emergency talks Thursday over UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan to rewrite parts of the Brexit divorce treaty

The UK unveiled its new Internal Market Bill in Parliament on Wednesday, which led to serious warnings from the EU.

“The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and we expect that the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement will be fully respected,” said European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic.

Sefcovic met Michael Gove, Britain’s Brexit preparation minister, at 12 p.m. UTC.

“I came here to express the serious concerns that the European Union has over the proposed bill,” Sefvocic said as he arrived in London.

They are leading a joint committee to negotiate post-Brexit rules for Northern Ireland.

A spokesman for Johnson said the UK remained committed to seeking a deal with the EU. At the same time, London sought to create a “safety net” for Northern Ireland post-Brexit.

“We can’t allow the peace process or the UK internal market to inadvertently be comprised by the ill-intended consequences of the protocol,” the spokesman told reporters. “We would expect other countries to recognize this and the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in.”

EU looks into ‘legal remedies’

The European Commission has already circulated a paper on legal options against London, including a recourse to the European Court of Justice. Independence from the EU court was a major goal of the pro-Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum.

“A breach of the obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement would open the way to legal remedies,” according to a draft document reportedly prepared by EU ambassadors and cited by the AFP news agency.

Two other EU officials also involved in the talks said the bloc’s executive European Commission would analyze the UK’s draft bill once it is passed to take into account any amendments before deciding whether to take legal action. 

“First there is the Joint Committee. If it’s short on the necessary clarifications, the dispute settling mechanism under the withdrawal agreement is there,” an EU diplomat told the Reuters news agency. 

Border issue in Ireland

The deal was signed by the two sides less than a year ago. Keeping the border between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland free of customs posts and other obstacles is a key aim.

However, the UK’s new plans include legislation to give itself the power to deviate from some of the provisions in the agreement.

A hard border would violate the peace agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

Several British politicians and lawyers have spoken out against the plan, saying that breaking an international commitment would tarnish Britain’s reputation. “If we can’t be trusted to abide by our word on this matter, well then why would anyone trust us in the future?” said Edward Garnier, a former British solicitor-general.

British former-Prime Minister John Major slammed Johnson for breaking an international commitment.

“If we lose our reputation for honoring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained,” said Major.

Senior US lawmaker Nancy Pelosi also warned against changes that could undermine the 1998 Irish peace deal.

“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress,” said the Democratic lawmaker, who serves as the speaker of the US House of Representatives.

“The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress,” she said.

Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin said he was “not optimistic at this stage” about a trade deal being reached in comments carried by the RTE national broadcaster.

Chief negotiators for both sides, David Frost and Michel Barnier, are expected to end their latest round of negotiations this week. Both have said that unless there is a suitable agreement by October, the UK will face an economically disruptive no-deal exit on January 1.

In a signal of frustration from Germany, Brexit expert and German lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s CDU party, Detlef Seif suggested ending the talks with London altogether.

“It makes no sense to negotiate with a partner about concluding a new accord, if they are not sticking to accord that have already been concluded,” Seif said.

While the next round of talks had been scheduled for the end of the month, negotiators could meet as early as next week to gain more time, according to a London government spokesman.

Any accord would need to be reached before the end of October in order for EU nations to ratify it before the transitional deal expires.

AP, Reuters / Deutsche Welle

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