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'Extremely serious violation': EU spells out its displeasure as it delivers ultimatum to UK in tense meeting

The EU has called on the British government to withdraw proposed measures that would breach the withdrawal agreement.

EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic (right) arriving at EU House, London
EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic (right) arriving at EU House, London
Image: PA

Updated Sep 10th 2020, 9:42 PM

THE EUROPEAN COMMISSION has said that the British government would be committing an “extremely serious violation” of the Brexit withdrawal agreement and of international law if it follows through on its controversial bill.

In an extraordinary meeting of the EU-UK Joint Committee in London today, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic told senior UK minister Michael Gove that the British government had agreed to the timely and full implementation of the withdrawal agreement last year. 

He also stated, “in no uncertain terms”, that breaching this agreement would “break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations”. Sefcovic said the UK should reverse the measures it has proposed by the end of this month. 

Gove refused to budge in the testy meeting today, however, and said the British government would not back down. 

The meeting today came amid anger in Ireland, in Europe and in the US at the decision from the British government to renege on the Brexit deal it made with the EU. 

The UK government has published a bill that would give British ministers powers to decide on some customs and State aid arrangements for Northern Ireland, which is contrary to the provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement, ratified by both the House of Commons and European Parliament. 

During the successful election campaign for the Conservatives in late 2019, Boris Johnson had described the deal as “oven ready”. 

Earlier today, Johnson’s government published its legal position on the matter and pointed to “difficult and highly exceptional circumstances” despite its wish to conduct its business in “good faith”. 

From Dublin to Brussels, however, the prevailing opinion is that the British are not acting in good faith.

In an EU statement, it said it did not “accept the argument” that the UK Internal Market Bill was needed to protect the Good Friday Agreement.

“In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” the statement said.

“Vice-president Maros Sefcovic called on the UK Government to withdraw these measures from the draft Bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month.

“He stated that by putting forward this Bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK Government to re-establish that trust.”

However, the British side indicated it would not be pulling back.

In a statement, Gove said: “I explained to vice president Sefcovic that we could not and would not do that. I made it perfectly clear to vice president Sefcovic that we would not be withdrawing this legislation. He understood that. Of course he regretted it.”

Meanwhile, there was growing unrest among senior Tories at the prospect the UK could go back on an international agreement, with Lord Howard becoming the third former party leader, after Theresa May and Sir John Major, to criticise the plan.

Speaking in the House of Lords, he accused the ministers of damaging the UK’s “reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law”.

“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he said.

Another Tory grandee, former chancellor Lord Lamont, warned the legislation would not get through the upper House unless there were changes.

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“The Government are in a terrible mess and in a hole and I don’t think it is easy to justify.

“In a way, this could take us back to square one with a terrible dilemma,” he told BBC Radio 4’s PM programme.

With reporting from the Press Association

About the author:

Sean Murray

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