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Brexit: EU threatens UK with legal action if plans for controversial bill are not reversed

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The European Union has told the British government it may take legal action if it does not reverse plans to introduce a bill that would break international law by overriding parts of the Withdrawal Agreement designed to avoid a border across the island of Ireland.

The plan by the British government undermines trust, places negotiations to reach a deal a future relationship in question, and puts at risks the Good Friday Agreement, the EU’s executive body said following an emergency meeting of the joint EU-UK committee that is dedicated to enacting the deal.

EU co-chair of the joint committee Maroš Šefèoviè told his counterpart British cabinet minister Michael Gove that if the bill were adopted “it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law” according to the EU statement.

Mr Šefèoviè “reminded the UK government that the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using,“the commission warned.

The Withdrawal Agreement was signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson and approved in the Westminster parliament last year following difficult negotiations with the EU.

“Violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations,” the commissions said.

It also rejected claims by Britain that the new bill was necessary to protect peace in the North. “The EU does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft Bill is to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” the statement said.

“By putting forward this Bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust.” The bill if adopted in its current form would be in “clear breach” of protocols of the Withdrawal Agreement regarding customs and state aid, and the British government would also “be in violation of the good faith obligation” according to the EU.

UK legal position

Publishing its legal position on breaking international law on Thursday afternoon, the British government said parliament would not be acting “unconstitutionally” in enacting the UK Internal Market Bill.

“It is an established principle of international law that a state is obliged to discharge its treaty obligations in good faith. This is, and will remain, the key principle in informing the UK’s approach to international relations.

“However, in the difficult and highly exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is important to remember the fundamental principle of Parliamentary sovereignty.”

It said parliament is “sovereign as a matter of domestic law and can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK’s treaty obligations” and “would not be acting unconstitutionally in enacting such legislation”.

The statement went on: “The legislation which implements the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, is expressly subject to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty.

“Parliament’s ability to pass provisions that would take precedence over the Withdrawal Agreement was expressly confirmed in section 38 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, with specific reference to the EU law concept of ‘direct effect’.”

‘Not optimistic’

Earlier on Thursday,Taoiseach Micheál Martin has said he is not optimistic about the prospect of a deal being reached between the United Kingdom and the European Union and acknowledged the Government is preparing for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit.

“Trust has been eroded”, Mr Martin said on Thursday as the EU and UK prepared to hold emergency talks on the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, under which the UK will leave the EU.

Relations between the EU and UK plunged to their worst level since the Brexit vote in 2016 on Wednesday when the British government published intended legislation which will violate the withdrawal treaty signed by the two sides last year, throwing the future of trade talks into doubt.

There were emergency contacts between EU leaders amid the development, while Mr Martin expressed the Government’s concerns in a “forthright” telephone call with British prime minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday night.

Asked about the detail of that call on Thursday, Mr Martin told RTÉ Radio One’s Morning Ireland: “Trust has been eroded but he made it clear to me that the UK was fully committed to meeting the obligations of protecting the single market and fluidity of trade north and south.”

Asked how he thought Ireland could believe this assertion, Mr Martin said: “The legislation runs counter to that”.

The controversial legislation, the UK Internal Market Bill, gives British ministers the power to decide unilaterally how parts of the Northern Ireland protocol in the withdrawal agreement should be implemented and disapplies parts of the treaty.

When asked if he believed there would be a no-deal Brexit, Mr Martin said Ireland was “preparing for that prospect”.

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