BRUSSELS—Trade talks between Britain and the European Union were on the brink of collapse Sept. 9 over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid to backtrack on the promises he made last year to keep the Northern Irish border open.
The EU’s leadership lashed out at the “unacceptable” move by 10 Downing Street, which also threatened to complicate ongoing negotiations the United Kingdom is carrying out with other countries, most notably the United States.
Their reaction came after Business Secretary Alok Sharma introduced a bill to the House of Commons that would hand British ministers legal powers to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal deal agreed to in October 2019, including overruling parts of the original Northern Ireland Protocol, which prevents a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the U.K., while the south is an EU country.
International politicians and experts have also warned the decision could severely hinder Britain’s ability to sign deals around the world if other countries feel they can’t trust the government to keep its word.
A spokesman for Johnson defended the new legislation on a call with reporters, saying it is needed to ensure that there are no major barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain in the event that an EU–UK deal can’t be reached.
He said the withdrawal pact was “agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances” last year and that meant “it contains ambiguities, and in key areas there is a lack of clarity.”
Johnson told Parliament his aim was to protect Northern Ireland from any possibility of “extreme or irrational” interpretations of the Brexit agreement that could jeopardize peace in Northern Ireland, Bloomberg reported.
EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier traveled to London for the eighth round of trade talks on Sept. 9, and to demand an explanation from his British counterpart David Frost over Downing Street’s intentions.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter that she was “very concerned” about the UK’s move, saying it would “break international law” as well as “undermine trust” in the negotiations on a future relationship.
Her remarks were echoed by Charles Michel, the leader of the European Council. “Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship,” he wrote on Twitter.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he had spoken to Johnson to “register our very strong concerns” about the development and expressed dismay that neither Dublin nor Brussels were given a “heads up” it was coming.
France’s Europe minister, Clement Beaune, wrote on Twitter that full implementation of the Irish border fix was “not negotiable.”
“Among friends and allies, we must keep our word and respect the law,” he wrote.
Also commenting on Twitter, some politicians went even further, calling on Barnier to immediately walk away from the talks in London.
“Why should we trust Boris Johnson now? He signed the agreement he is changing now unilaterally. There is no need for any further negotiations,” said Markus Ferber, a senior German member of the EU Parliament.
MEP Luis Garicano, vice-president of Renew Europe, added: “No point of negotiating an agreement if it is going to be simply ignored by the UK. We need to pause the negotiations and reach a common understanding.”
European diplomats have said Barnier will not abandon the talks unless absolutely necessary, citing concerns that doing so would play into the hands of hardline Brexiteers who have been agitating for no deal.
British officials insisted the changes are only meant as a targeted “safety net” and that they are fully committed to last year’s agreement. They expressed confidence Barnier would understand the measures and why they are needed to protect the peace process once he had studied the detail of their proposals.
The UK is locked in talks to roll over a number of international agreements it currently enjoys from its time as a member of the EU, including ones with Canada and Japan, which will expire at the end of the year.