LONDON (AFP) – Britain yesterday faced warnings it risked its international reputation if it reneged on its agreement to leave the European Union (EU), as Brexit trade talks reached a crucial final stage.
The Financial Times reported that Prime Minister Boris Johnson was planning new legislation that would override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement treaty that Britain and the EU agreed in October last year.
It cited three people close to the plans as saying a bill to be put before Parliament this week would undermine agreements relating to Northern Ireland customs and state aid.
In response, Downing Street said only it was still “working hard to resolve outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol” but was considering “fall-back options”.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland, which will have Britain’s only land border with the EU, will follow some of the bloc’s rules to ensure the frontier remains open.
Eliminating border checks with the Republic of Ireland was a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended 30 years of violence over British rule in the province.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, promised to quiz his UK opposite number, David Frost, about the plans but added, “Everything that has been signed must be respected.”
Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said, “This would be a very unwise way to proceed.”
Legal experts warned the new bill risked the collapse of the latest round of Brexit talks, which resume in London today, and undermining Britain’s international standing.
David Allen Green, a specialist on trade, said that reneging on the treaty was “the least sensible thing” that Britain could do as it seeks to negotiate new international trade agreements.
“Why would any other counter-party now trust UK to abide with commitments?” he wrote on Twitter. The report came after Johnson said the October 15 European Council meeting was the ultimate deadline for any deal to be in place by January 1 next year.
“If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free-trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on,” he said.
His comments and the FT report did little to raise hopes of a breakthrough this week, while the prospect of a “no-deal” forced the pound down against the dollar and the euro.
Brexit trade talks have been deadlocked over key issues such as the extent of EU access to UK fishing waters, state aid and fair competition rules.
Each side accuses the other of intransigence, and Johnson, despite pledging to “work hard” this month to achieve agreement, did little to indicate Britain would give ground.
“We cannot and will not compromise on the fundamentals of what it means to be an independent country to get (a deal),” he said. Brussels has already indicated that mid-October was the latest a deal could be struck, given the need for translation and ratification by the European Parliament.
But if the deadline passes, Johnson said Britain would have an “Australia-style” deal with the EU or one similar to that agreed with Canada and other countries.
The British government had said it wanted a “zero tariff, zero quota” regime. Australia trades with the EU under World Trade Organization rules and tariffs.
“As we have said right from the start, that would be a good outcome for the UK,” said Johnson. Johnson’s hardball tactics will likely compound suspicions from British pro-EU “remainers” that his Conservative government envisaged a “no-deal” scenario all along.
“Brexiteers” had promised that securing a deal would be straightforward and rejected criticism that unravelling nearly 50 years of ties with Europe would be lengthy and even impossible.