LONDON – Instead of closing in on a future trade deal, the European Union and Britain entered a bitter fight Thursday over a planned British law that the EU says would constitute a serious violation of the Brexit divorce agreement and destroy what little trust remains between the two sides.
The 27-nation bloc said Britain must withdraw the planned law dealing with Northern Ireland trade by the end of the month or face legal action even before the transition period following Britain's EU departure ends on Dec. 31.
“By putting forward this bill, the U.K. has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the U.K. government to reestablish that trust,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said after talks with Britain's chief Brexit minister, Michael Gove, at a hastily arranged meeting in London.
Simultaneous talks on a future trade deal also remained in a rut, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier accusing Britain of wanting to keep the advantages of membership it freely relinquished on Jan. 31 when it officially left the bloc.
“The U.K. is refusing to include indispensable guarantees of fair competition in our future agreement, while requesting free access to our market," Barnier said.
Less than a year ago the two sides signed and ratified a withdrawal agreement that Britain now acknowledges it will violate with its Internal Market Bill, which would diminish the EU's oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. That's a sensitive issue because Northern Ireland has the U.K's only land border with the EU.
Sefcovic said the bill, if adopted, “would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law.”
He said that if Britain didn't change course by the end of September, the EU would take legal action.
“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," Sefcovic said.
The U.K. has acknowledged that the proposed legislation breaks international law “in a very specific and limited way.” But it argues that it is acting legally under British law because according to the “fundamental principle of Parliamentary sovereignty … treaty obligations only become binding to the extent that they are enshrined in domestic legislation.”
Britain and the EU have jointly promised in the Brexit divorce agreement to ensure there are no customs posts or other obstacles on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.
An open border underpins the peace agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Any hardening of the border could anger nationalists who want a united Ireland. But any new barriers to trade across the Irish Sea would rile Unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay British.
Both Britain and the EU claim to be acting to preserve peace.
Britain says its law is intended to ensure there are no barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. in the event that there is no deal with the EU. On Thursday, it said it would try to push the bill into law quickly, scheduling it for debate in Parliament starting Monday.
“This legislation is critical to ensuring there is unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom,” Gove said.
Sefcovic said the EU did not agree that the bill aimed to protect Northern Ireland's peace accord. “In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” he said.
The EU has an ally in Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said Britain would have no chance of striking a coveted trade deal with the United States if it breached an international treaty and undermined Northern Ireland's Good Friday peace accord
"How can they walk away from an international agreement? How do you trust that?” Pelosi said at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Thursday.
“What were they thinking?” Pelosi said. “They’re not thinking of the U.K.-U.S. bilateral trade agreements.”
Many British politicians and lawyers have also expressed alarm, saying that reneging on a legally binding international commitment would trash Britain’s reputation for upholding law and order.
The top civil servant in the government’s legal department resigned this week, reportedly because of opposition to the proposed law.
Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, a supporter of Brexit, said the government was damaging “our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law.”
“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he said in Parliament.
Britain left the political structures of the EU on Jan. 31 and will make an economic break when an 11-month transition period ends on Dec. 31. The two sides are trying to strike a new trade deal by then, but talks have bogged down over issues including fishing rights in U.K. waters and fair-competition rules for businesses.
The two sides’ chief negotiators, David Frost and Barnier, ended their latest round of negotiations on Thursday with no major progress reported, though they did agree to keep talking.
Frost said “we remain committed to working hard to reach agreement by the middle of October” and the two sides would hold more talks in Brussels next week.
Both sides say that unless there is an agreement by next month, Britain is facing an economically disruptive no-deal exit on Jan. 1.
Barnier said that “the EU is intensifying its preparedness" for a possible no-deal by New Year's, which is set to hurt the bloc, even if not as much as it will hurt Britain.
Raf Casert reported from Brussels. Lisa Mascaro in Washington contributed to this report.