The British Government has rebuffed a fresh demand from the EU to withdraw controversial legislation which could see the UK unilaterally tear up elements of the Brexit divorce deal.
At talks in Brussels on Monday, European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic reiterated calls for ministers to scrap provisions in the UK Internal Market Bill giving them the power to override key provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement.
At a news conference following the meeting of the joint committee on the implementation of the agreement, Mr Sefcovic said the EU “will not be shy” in taking legal action if the UK fails to comply by the deadline of the end of the month on Wednesday.
However, UKCabinet Office Minister Michael Gove, who co-chairs the committee with Mr Sefcovic, said his Government intended to continue with passage of the Bill through Parliament.
He said the provisions relating to the Northern Ireland protocol in the agreement were a legal “safety net” to ensure the British Government could continue to protect the peace process if talks on a post-Brexit free trade deal fail.
“We want to reach agreement in the joint committee, we want to make sure that the position of Northern Ireland is secure in the United Kingdom, we want to make sure that Withdrawal Agreement is implemented in full.
“But those clauses are there.
“They are in legislation supported by the House of Commons as a safety net if need be.
“And those clauses will remain that Bill.”
Mr Sefcovic said the provisions in the Bill represented an “extremely serious violation” of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law.
“The Withdrawal Agreement is to be implemented, not to be renegotiated, let alone unilaterally changed, disregarded or disapplied,” he said.
“Once again, I reminded the UK Government today that the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address the violation of the legal obligations contained in the text.
“And I underscored that the EU will not be shy in using it.”
He indicated, however, that efforts to resolve their differences would continue even if the UK failed to comply with the EU’s demand to withdraw the legislation by the end of the month.
He said that he had called for a meeting of a “specialised committee” looking at the Northern Ireland issue to meet by “early October at the latest”.
Mr Sefcovic signalled that the negotiations on a free trade deal headed by Michel Barnier and Lord Frost, which resume in the Belgian capital on Tuesday, would also carry on.
“For us it is very clear that protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland shouldn’t be a bargaining chip in any negotiations that we have between the EU and the UK,” the European Commission vice president said.
“It will never be the EU which would cause the end of the negotiation of a future partnership between the EU and the UK.”
Boris Johnson has indicated that he would be prepared to walk away from the negotiations if there is no agreement by the time of the next EU summit on October 15.
He has said that if there is no deal in place by then it would be too late to implement before the end of the current Brexit transition period which ends at the end of the year.