This may be the week Brussels gave up on Brexit.
U.K. plans for an internal market that undermine parts of the Withdrawal Agreement — and the way in which the British government has announced its intentions — have infuriated the European Union.
Proposed domestic legislation published Wednesday sets out powers for the U.K. to define which goods traveling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be “at risk” of ending up in the Republic of Ireland and therefore subject to tariffs. Yet the Protocol on Northern Ireland agreed between the two sides said that would be a decision for the Joint Committee, made up of representatives from the U.K. and EU.
The bill also allows the U.K. to unilaterally remove the need for export declarations for goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, which was also supposed to be up for discussion in the Joint Committee, and it allows the U.K. to interpret whether EU state aid law affecting firms in Northern Ireland should be applied to linked firms in Great Britain.
As Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons on Tuesday, the British government is well aware the measures could breach international law.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis visited Downing Street last week | Justin Tallis/AFP via Getty Images
The bill, combined with recent threats by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to walk away if theres no deal by October and the new U.K. approach to subsidy control — which replaces EU state aid laws with World Trade Organization subsidy rules — was described as “carpet-bombing” by London,according to an EU official.
“This is just shocking,” the EU official said. “Its always hard to make a rational analysis of the moves of a populist government. But this can no longer be seen as a political strategy to build up to a compromise. Its a clear intention to pave the way toward a no-deal.”
Even official statements did little to hide the EUs rage. Following a phone call Wednesday evening between U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Micheál Martin, a spokesman for the Taoiseach said Martin “told the British prime minister that the government of Ireland is gravely concerned about Britains stated intention to breach an international treaty, the lack of bilateral engagement and the serious implications these developments pose for Northern Ireland.”
And for the avoidance of doubt, he added that the Irish governments concerns were conveyed “in forthright terms.”
The EU has said time and again that the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, is a prerequisite for any deal on the future relationship.
But Johnsons spokesperson said Wednesday that “the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol arent like any other treaty. It was agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances.”
Johnson himself said later on Wednesday at a press conference that “nobody wants to see a barrier under the Northern Irish sea. So what we are doing … is putting a safety net beneath … to protect peace and to protect the settlement in our United Kingdom.”
In the EU, those words were met not just with disbelief, but with anger. Not only did the negotiations on the Irish border drag on for years, it was also the current British government that signed the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Its fair to say that theres huge anger on this side,” said the Irish European Affairs Minister Thomas Byrne. “This is a dangerous and provocative act, and it is illegal.”
And its not just the EU thats critical. Protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the Irish border is also a politically sensitive issue in Washington and senior U.S. Democrats have warned the U.K. it must respect the agreement.
Camouflage for failure
Before the U.K. published its Internal Market Bill on Wednesday, some EU officials interpreted the governments rhetoric as an attempt to push the EU into giving in on sensitive issues in the trade negotiations by threatening to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement in the event of no deal. The U.K. could then offer to respect the Withdrawal Agreement in exchange for EU concessions on trade.
The tough talk only seems intended to camouflage the U.K.s failure to reach a deal by the end of the transition period on December 31, EU diplomats argue. “This can only be interpreted as a stepping stone to a no-deal,” said one EU diplomat.
Top EU trade lawmaker Bernd Lange also no longer believes London is bluffing on rowing back on the Withdrawal Agreement to secure concessions on a trade deal. He pointed to the resignation of Jonathan Jones, the head of the U.K. governments legal department, as a sign “that this is not a tactical move in the negotiations but a political decision.”
So the question now is: How should the EU retaliate?
By rowing back on promises, the U.K. has gone too far, said Lange, who chairs the European Parliaments trade committee. He urged the EU to pause negotiations until Johnson makes clear whether he intends to honor commitments on the Irish border.