LONDON—Instead of closing in on a future trade deal, the European Union and Britain entered a bitter fight Thursday over a planned British law that the EU says would constitute a serious violation of the Brexit divorce agreement and destroy what little trust remains between the two sides.
The 27-nation bloc said Britain must withdraw the planned law dealing with Northern Ireland trade by the end of the month or face a legal fight even before the transition period following Britain departure ends on Dec. 31.
“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 reestablish that trust,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said, using acrimonious terms belying decades of cooperation within the EU.
The EU and Britain have signed and ratified a withdrawal agreement which Britain has acknowledged it will violate with the new planned law. It would diminish the EU’s oversight in trading between Britain and Northern Ireland, which has the UK’s only land border with the EU.
The EU made the announcement about Britain’s plan to break part of the Brexit divorce agreement after top officials from both sides held an emergency meeting on the matter in London.
Britain’s decision to break international law by overwriting part of the EU Withdrawal Agreement has alarmed European leaders and threatens to scuttle the fragile negotiations on future UK-EU relations currently being held in the British capital.
“If the bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law,” Sefcovic said.
The EU also warned that it would take legal action, if necessary.
“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,” Sefcovic said.
Keeping the EU-UK border free of customs posts and other obstacles is a key aim of the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the two sides less than a year ago. An open border underpins the peace agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, said, “If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday (peace) accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”
Johnson’s Conservative British government announced this week that it plans to legislate to give itself the power to deviate from some of the provisions in the agreement about Northern Ireland trade.
It says it’s doing so in order to protect the peace agreement in the event there is no deal with the EU. On Thursday, it said it would try to push the bill into law quickly, scheduling it for debate in Parliament starting Monday.
Many British politicians and lawyers also expressed alarm, saying that reneging on a legally binding international commitment would trash Britain’s reputation for upholding law and order.
“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.
Britain left the political structures of the EU on Jan. 31 and will make an economic break when an 11-month transition period ends on Dec. 31. The two sides are trying to strike a new trade deal by then, but talks have bogged down over issues including fishing rights in UK waters and fair-competition rules for businesses.
The two sides’ chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, are due to end their latest round of negotiations on Thursday. Both sides say that unless there is an agreement by next month, Britain is facing an economically disruptive no-deal exit on Jan. 1.
By Jill Lawless and Raf Casert