With less than 100 days until the end of the Brexit transition period, a new crisis in EU-UK talks has emerged after British Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed new domestic laws for Britain that would undercut the Brexit divorce international treaty, known as the Withdrawal Agreement.
What is already a political and economic minefield has been made more tricky by the coronavirus.
Lockdowns across the continent have been hugely damaging financially, and bad terms for either the EU or Britain could compound the problems.
Johnson on Tuesday moved a step closer to getting parliamentary approval for new powers to break the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the European Union last year as lawmakers backed changes to the Internal Market Bill.
The bill aims to ensure Britain’s four nations can trade freely with each other after Brexit.
Ministers say that will require breaking the EU exit treaty to protect Northern Ireland unless stalled talks with Brussels make a breakthrough.
The plan has angered the EU and drawn heavy criticism from lawmakers who say that going back on an international agreement damages Britain’s reputation.
The European Commission will look into legal remedies at the end of the month if Britain does not adjust the parts of a domestic bill which breaches the Brexit divorce deal agreed last year, EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said on Tuesday.
Sefcovic, speaking after a meeting of Europe ministers in Brussels, said that the Commission, which is negotiating on behalf of the 27 EU members, was asking London to withdraw the contentious parts of the bill by the end of September.
EU BREXIT DEAL
The European Union is determined to get a Brexit trade deal with Britain but will be firm and realistic with London after Prime Minister Boris Johnson decided to break the divorce agreement, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured) said on Wednesday.
The United Kingdom left the EU in January but remains a member in all but name until the end of the year, by which time it hopes to have clinched a free trade deal with the bloc.
Talks have snagged on fishing, state aid rules and how trade will flow to Northern Ireland which will remain – under the 2020 divorce treaty – in closer orbit to the EU than will the rest of the United Kingdom.
After Johnson announced a bill that would override parts of the 2020 accord, the EU demanded that he step back from the brink though parliament on Tuesday backed giving Johnson the powers to undercut it.
On arrival in London before informal talks with Britain, Barnier told Reuters when asked if he was optimistic about reaching a deal: “I am determined.”
“We remain calm, respectful, realistic and firm”, Barnier said, though he declined to comment on the Internal Market Bill or on the odds of securing a trade deal.
Failure to reach a deal would create uncertainty over trade in everything from car parts and shellfish to data and Scotch whisky, while spooking financial markets just as Europe’s economies grapple with a second wave of the COVID-19 outbreak.
British trucks could face delays of up to two days to enter Europe and queues of around 7,000 lorries after Britain leaves the bloc at the end of this year, disrupting imports and exports of crucial goods, the government has warned.
Michael Gove, the minister overseeing the Brexit talks, told the logistics and freight industry that truck drivers would face new customs controls and processes irrespective of whether a trade deal can be agreed between the two sides.
He said under the government’s reasonable worst case scenario, up to 70% of trucks travelling to the EU might not be ready for new border controls.
Britain says it is working hard to reach an agreement, but has stuck to its position that any deal must respect the country’s sovereignty.
The EU says because of Britain’s proximity to the bloc, London must agree to a so-called level playing field of fair competition guarantees.
The two sides will hold the next round of formal talks next week in Brussels before a summit on Oct. 1-2 to assess progress and decide whether the bloc should step up no-deal preparations.
Britain hopes never to need to use proposed powers to break its Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland Office minister Robin Walker said on Monday.