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EU’s ‘serious concerns’ over Brexit treaty move ahead of emergency talks


By PA News

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EU Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic (right) and EU Ambassador to the UK, Portuguese diplomat Joao Vale de Almeida, arrive at EU House, London (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

The EU has expressed “serious concerns” over Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to override part of the Brexit divorce deal ahead of emergency talks with the UK.

European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said he would listen to what Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had to say during an “extraordinary meeting” on Thursday before deciding whether Britain can still be trusted.

The meeting of the UK-EU joint committee in London was arranged after the Government tabled legislation to alter key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement that Mr Johnson signed with Brussels.

The Prime Minister infuriated senior members of his own party and Brussels just as trade deal negotiations reached a crunch week, when ministers admitted they could break international law over the deal.

Mr Sefcovic, arriving at St Pancras, told reporters: “I came here to express the serious concerns that the European Union has over the proposed Bill. So that will be the nature of our discussions today.”

Asked if he has lost trust in the UK Government, Mr Sefcovic replied: “Let’s hear what Michael Gove will tell me this afternoon.”

Mr Gove was expected to tell his counterpart the UK remains committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol and must “provide a safety net that removes any ambiguity” during the talks scheduled for two hours, Downing Street said.

Meanwhile, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his counterpart from Downing Street, Lord Frost, were to meet for the final day of the eighth round of trade deal negotiations in London.

Mr Johnson has argued that the UK Internal Markets Bill tabled this week is necessary to preserve unfettered trade within the UK and prevent a border between Britain and Northern Ireland.

But he has dismayed Brussels by threatening to breach international law.

There is also widespread criticism at home, with Lord Howard becoming the third Conservative former party leader to criticise Mr Johnson’s plans as he accused the Government 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 are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he told the House of Lords.

Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin called the Prime Minister to express his concerns, including “the breach of an international treaty, the absence of bilateral engagement and the serious implications for Northern Ireland”.

The move has also angered some in the US, where Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said there is “absolutely no chance” of Congress passing a trade deal with the UK if it threatens the Northern Ireland peace process.

“Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland,” Ms Pelosi said.

“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”

Ministers argue the new proposed legislation is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if London and Brussels are unable to agree a free trade deal before the current Brexit transition period runs out at the end of the year.

Tory former prime ministers Sir John Major and Theresa May have also criticised the move.

Sir John said: “For generations, Britain’s word, solemnly given, has been accepted by friend and foe.

“Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct.

“Over the last century, as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power.

“If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted Mr Johnson needs to secure a deal with the EU.

He said: “If you fail to get a deal, Prime Minister, you own that failure.”

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