The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator has warned that Brussels will not yield to threats or blackmail as the furious row over the Northern Ireland border came one step closer to unleashing a trade war.
Maros Sefcovic in fact accused Boris Johnson of lying about the consequences of the EU’s withdrawal, declaring that it was time for “honesty” about the problems posed by the form of hard Brexit chosen by the British government .
He urged the bloc of 27 countries to be united in rejecting Britain’s demands to rewrite the controversial Northern Ireland protocol, sending a stark message to London: “We in the EU never work with threats, we never work with threats.” with blackmail, we try to work together with constructive engagement and I advocate that.”
The Vice-President of the European Commission spoke after Foreign Minister Liz Truss told him Britain would have “no choice” but to take unilateral action unless Brussels complied with his demand for new concessions to the protocol, which was signed in May. effectively created a customs border between Northern Ireland and the British mainland.
Her comments in crunch telephone conversations with Mr Sefcovic set the stage for the publication within days of legislation to overturn the protocol, signed by Mr Johnson in 2020 with the aim of keeping the Irish border open after Brexit.
The Foreign Secretary expressed her “regret” at the EU’s rejection of UK demands to review Mr Sefcovic’s negotiating mandate, saying that “if the EU did not show the required flexibility to resolve these issues, we as a responsible government would have no choice but to act”.
Her ultimatum came hours after Attorney General Suella Braverman revealed she had received legal advice that it would be lawful to tear up parts of the protocol because of the “disproportionate and unreasonable” way the UK believes it was implemented by Brussels.
During BBC Question Time on Thursday night, Ms Braverman said action against the protocol is becoming “painful, apparently necessary”.
Meanwhile, former Brexit minister Lord Frost writes: the Telegraph, said the government now has “no choice” but to tear “some or all of the protocol”. He urged Johnson to act, even if it leads to a “confrontation” with the bloc.
Downing Street acknowledged the situation was “very serious” but insisted no decision on action had been taken yet. Discussions are expected to continue at an official level in the coming days.
But Mr Sefcovic said the “likelihood” now was that the UK government would draft a new version of the Internal Market Act, which caused a deep rift between London and Brussels in 2020 after ministers admitted that the provisions to lift customs controls in would be contrary to international law.
And a senior Downing Street source said the cabinet was united on the stance that “something needs to be done” as the EU stance appeared to be getting tougher.
“You never know what the EU will come back with,” said the source. “But they’ve set their footing today and we have no signs that that’s going to change.”
Mr Johnson himself indicated that the government felt compelled to act over the unionist DUP’s refusal to enter into a power-sharing government with Sinn Fein, as long as protocol remains in its current form – a situation he proposed to avoid. the Good Friday Agreement at risk.
“It is clear that the trade union community will not accept the protocol,” the prime minister said. “That’s clear from what happened. We have to solve it.”
Any unilateral breach of the protocol by the UK could eventually lead to a trade war with Europe, allowing Brussels to suspend all or part of the zero-tariff trade agreement signed in 2020.
The former head of the government’s legal department, Sir Jonathan Jones QC, who resigned over the single market law, warned that introducing the necessary legislation to override the protocol would be “seriously problematic”.
“It feels like a repeat of what happened two years ago when the government proposed to violate international law,” he said.
“We know that the EU will be very angry if that happens and I think it is understandable that they would be angry because this would be a one-sided act and it would be the relationship we will continue to need with the EU post very serious harm. -Brexit.”
But it could take up to a year for legislation to pass parliament, with stiff opposition in the House of Lords, and government sources made it clear that negotiations could continue during that time to try to avoid a hugely expensive break in trade relations.
Mr Sefcovic expressed “serious concern” about the deadlock and warned it would be “unacceptable” for the UK to walk away from the international treaty signed by Mr Johnson.
He warned the prime minister’s ambitions set out in Tuesday’s Queen’s Speech for the UK to deviate further from EU standards and regulations would lead to “more complications, more difficulties, more controls” on goods crossing the border. to cross.
The commission’s vice-chair denounced a lack of “political will” on the British side to agree to proposed solutions to the trade disruption: “Honesty about what the UK has signed is needed. Honesty that the EU cannot solve all problems caused by Brexit and the type of Brexit chosen by the UK.
“We will not renegotiate the protocol, and the EU is united in this position. Unilateral action to effectively disapply the protocol is not the solution.”
After being briefed by Mr Sefcovic of his talks with Ms Truss, Irish Foreign Secretary Simon Coveney said Dublin agreed with the rejection of “the British government’s threats of unilateral action and violation of international law” .
“The way forward is partnership, dialogue and sincere negotiations, not threats and increasing tension,” Coveney said.
Ms Truss ramped up tensions over the protocol on Tuesday, with a statement warning that EU proposals to reduce friction in trade would in fact set us “backwards”.
But Mr Sefcovic told her on Thursday there was “no room” for further concessions or for a change to his negotiating mandate, which must be approved by all 27 EU member states.
Ms Truss said the protocol caused “unacceptable disruption to trade” and had “created a two-tier system where people in Northern Ireland were not treated the same as everyone else in the UK”.
She called for “more pragmatism” from the committee, saying the problems could be solved, while still protecting the EU’s internal market, by implementing UK proposals for goods destined for Northern Ireland to light “green channel” on customs, with strict controls reserved for those going to the Republic.
But Mr Sefcovic said taking unilateral action to overrule an international treaty would undermine trust between the EU and the UK, and jeopardize efforts to protect the Good Friday Agreement. .
“The EU and the UK are partners facing the same global challenges, where upholding the rule of law and respecting international obligations is a necessity,” he said. “Working side by side in a constructive way is of the utmost importance.”