In Depth

Explained: Boris Johnson’s plan to ‘undermine’ EU withdrawal agreement - despite risk to Brexit talks

Bill to be tabled on Wednesday seeks to row back on treaty signed in January

As time ticks down in the negotiations between Britain and the European Union, Boris Johnson may be about to throw a major spanner in the works by seeking to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal. 

Parts of the UK Internal Markets Bill - due to be published this Wednesday - will “eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement”, according to the Financial Times (FT), citing three people familiar with the plans.

The newspaper’s public policy editor Peter Foster suggests that the move could put Brexit talks at risk - and that the government is “increasingly resigned to a ‘no deal’” exit.

What is in the bill?

Outlined in a white paper in July, the UK Internal Market Bill is intended to secure the “seamless functioning” of trade between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland after the transition period ends on 31 December.

However, sources say that “some clauses in the Bill will effectively override parts of the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which was signed alongside the withdrawal agreement in October”, the FT reports. 

The Bill will also seek to dilute “the ability of the protocol to intrude on UK state-aid policy”, the paper adds. 

Under the existing withdrawal agreement, the UK must tell Brussels about any state-aid decisions that would impact Northern Ireland’s goods market, as part of efforts to maintain a level-playing field among British and European businesses.

But clauses in the new Bill will reportedly “force the UK courts to follow the new UK law rather than the EU deal”.

What is Johnson planning?

The prime minister is widely expected to put an ultimatum to European negotiators this week, insisting that a deal must be secured by 15 October or Britain will walk away from the table.

But Downing Street’s bid to “unpick parts of the withdrawal agreement” threatens the collapse of the “crunch talks”, says The Guardian.

As The Irish Times notes, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier warned last week that “a precise implementation of the withdrawal agreement” was the only grounding on which the bloc would agree to a deal.

However, a government source told The Guardian that the controversial sections of the Internal Market Bill were “part of the preparation for a no-deal exit that would present a number of new barriers to trade from Northern Ireland – and accepted that the move was likely to blow up at the negotiations”.

And the reaction?

The FT’s Foster tweets that the Bill “risks calling into question the reputation of the UK as a country that negotiates in good faith”. 

Many Whitehall officials are “deeply uncomfortable” with the plan, he says, adding that the Foreign Office is the “not sure how it can criticise China for not meeting international obligation if [the] UK is paring back obligations of a Treaty it signed less than a year ago”.

Labour has also been quick to denounce the Bill. Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh warned that the PM is “threatening to renege on the UK’s legal obligations” with what amounts to “an act of immense bad faith: one that would be viewed dimly by future trading partners and allies around the world”.

Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Covney, who helped negotiate the original withdrawal agreement, tweeted that any efforts to change it would be “a very unwise way to proceed”.

Meanwhile, a source “familiar with the matter” told the FT that the move was “a very blunt instrument”.

“The Bill will explicitly say the government reserves the right to set its own regime, directly setting up UK law in opposition with obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and in full cognisance that this will breach international law,” the insider said.

However, Environment Secretary George Eustice this morning claimed that any efforts to remove legal obligations relating to Northern Ireland were just a tidying of “loose ends”. Speaking to Times Radio, Eustice said: “It’s always been the case that at the end [of negotiations] there could still be one or two loose ends.

“The government at that point has got a responsibility to offer some legal certainty to businesses.”

What next?

Johnson is expected to lay out his final timetable for negotiations today, setting the stopwatch to run out in less than 40 days.

The Bill “is not likely to go down well with the EU”, but Brexiteers will be pleased, as it means that “in a ‘no deal’ scenario”, the UK “seeks untrammeled sovereignty”, says Foster. 

Environment Secretary Eustice this morning refused to comment on claims made in The Times by The Spectator’s political editor James Forsyth that Downing Street puts the chances of getting a trade deal with the EU at just 30% to 40%.

But sources close to the negotiations told The Guardian that “fresh faces and interventions by member states are now needed to break the impasse after days of recriminations”.

In other words, the stage appears to be set for a no-deal exit on 31 December.

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