Government plans to amend the internal market bill that overrides sections of the Brexit divorce deal
Parliament will be asked to override withdrawal agreement only if Northern Ireland protocol is undermined, says No 10
Downing Street has clarified that it would ask parliament to support using powers to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement only if the EU undermines the “fundamental purpose” of the Northern Ireland protocol.
Boris Johnson brokered a deal with Conservative rebels on Wednesday to see off a potential party revolt, agreeing to grant MPs a vote before invoking powers in the UK internal market bill that would break international law by breaching the EU withdrawal agreement.
In a fresh concession to rebels, No 10 published a policy paper on Thursday setting out the circumstances in which it would use the powers, as well as confirming that the government would also seek to use the dispute resolution mechanisms in the withdrawal agreement at the same time.
Former Tory leader Lord Howard said the compromise between No 10 and Tory MPs “isn’t enough” for him to back it in the House of Lords.
The proposed changes would hand the Commons a say before powers to break international law could be used.
MPs will vote on them next week, before the bill heads to the Lords.
‘Matter of principle’
But Lord Howard, who was Conservative leader between 2003 and 2005, told the BBC: “The government is still asking Parliament to break international law.”
He added that even with the government’s proposed changes, the chances of the bill being approved by the House of Lords were currently “not great.”
Asked if the matter could lead to a stand-off between the Commons and the Lords over the issue, he said: “I think it may go beyond that”.
“I don’t know what my colleagues will do, but as far as I’m concerned this is a matter of principle,” added the Brexit-backing peer.
Brussels is now viewing the last week of September and the first two weeks of October, before an EU leaders’ summit on 15 October, as “very crucial” to the outcome of the trade and security negotiations. One senior diplomat said the EU had been “distressed and appalled” by the UK’s attempt to unilaterally rewrite the withdrawal agreement, but added that the bloc was determined to continue the talks.
“Because it’s two separate tracks: one is the withdrawal agreement which the UK has decided to violate, and the next is going to be the future relationship,” said the diplomat.
The EU is examining two main options: taking the UK to the European court of Justice or continuing the negotiations and then presenting the British government with the choice of dropping the relevant clauses of the internal market bill in order to secure a trade deal or leaving without an agreement. “It is up to the UK now,” said an official.
The bill passed its second reading in the Commons on Monday evening by a majority of 77 despite a group of Tory MPs abstaining.
In its policy paper on Thursday, the government explained that it will ask parliament to support the provisions in the relevant clauses “only in the case of, in our view, the EU being engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations, and thereby undermining the fundamental purpose of the Northern Ireland protocol”.
Under the Northern Ireland protocol, Northern Ireland would continue to enforce EU customs and follow product standards rules to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland.
No 10 also confirmed that “in parallel with the use of these provisions, it would always activate appropriate formal dispute settlement mechanisms with the aim of finding a solution through this route”.
In a policy paper published on Thursday, the government said the powers would only be triggered if the EU undermined the “fundamental purpose” of these negotiations.
It listed examples of what it said would constitute such behaviour, including if the EU insisted on export declarations for goods sent to Great Britain from Northern Ireland.
It also pledged that if it did decide to use powers to override the Brexit divorce deal, it would begin formal dispute settlement talks with the EU at the same time.
Defending the bill on Wednesday, the prime minister said he believed the EU may not be negotiating with the UK in good faith during talks over a post-Brexit trade deal.
The EU has reacted angrily to the bill, threatening legal action and the possible suspension of trade talks if the measures overriding the withdrawal agreement are not withdrawn.
Asked to comment on the government’s planned changes to the legislation, the European Commission said it would not comment on “internal discussions” between British ministers and MPs.
However chief spokesman Eric Mamer said an EU request for the UK to withdraw the sections of the bill before the end of September “has not changed”.
On Mr Johnson’s claim the EU had not been negotiating in good faith, he said agreements the EU had struck with countries around the world showed the bloc had a “rather splendid track record” in this area.
He added that the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had demonstrated he could negotiate in good faith, even on “politically sensitive issues”, during talks to conclude the UK’s withdrawal deal, which entered into force in February.
Informal talks on a trade agreement are continuing in Brussels this week, ahead of another full-scale negotiation round later this month.
A UK Government spokesperson described the talks as “useful” and said “some limited progress was made”.
However they added that “significant gaps remain in key areas, including fisheries and subsidies”.