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EU a threat to integrity of the UK

Boris Johnson said a Canada-style trade deal with the EU is still possible and remains his goal – Stefan Rousseau/AFP

Boris Johnson has accused the European Union of threatening to impose a food “blockade” in the Irish Sea that would destroy the “economic and territorial integrity of the UK”.

Writing in The Telegraph, the Prime Minister made a passionate defence of his decision to alter the Brexit divorce deal, saying he has to protect Britain from the “disaster” of handing Brussels the “power to carve up our country”.

He also issued a direct plea to Tory MPs threatening to rebel over his plans, telling them that, if they stand in his way, they will reduce the chance of getting a trade deal with the EU.

Mr Johnson insisted a Canada-style trade deal with the bloc is still possible and remains his goal, but that Brussels must “take their threats off the table” and rebel MPs must get into line. He also believes the UK will still “prosper mightily” under a narrower, Australia-style trade deal.

The Prime Minister claimed the EU could effectively impose a food blockade across the Irish Sea by refusing to grant the UK approved “third party” status for food exports, which officials say Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has “explicitly” threatened.

Officials say Michel Barnier has 'explicitly' threatened to refuse to grant the UK approved 'third party' status for food exports - Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe
Officials say Michel Barnier has ‘explicitly’ threatened to refuse to grant the UK approved ‘third party’ status for food exports – Leon Neal/Getty Images Europe

The Withdrawal Agreement gives the EU oversight over goods of animal origin being transported from the mainland to Northern Ireland for four years, meaning Brussels could use an “extreme interpretation” to impose tariffs or declare such trade illegal.

On Friday, Mr Johnson addressed Tory MPs in a video conference, telling them he wanted to “clear up a serious anomaly” in the agreement. 

The Government is trying to rush through legislation that would amend the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular its Northern Ireland protocol.

Mr Johnson argues that he has been forced to act because of a “serious misunderstanding” in Brussels about the terms of the agreement, and must unilaterally make changes to it because it has become a “danger to the very fabric of the United Kingdom”.

The EU has told Mr Johnson that, unless he backtracks by the end of the month, the trade talks are over. 

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Some senior Conservatives have expressed outrage after ministers admitted the move would break international law (see video below), and MEPs said on Friday they would refuse to ratify any trade deal if Mr Johnson’s Internal Market Bill passed.

But the Prime Minister has come out fighting, using his article to warn off the EU and the rebels within his party.

He wrote: “Unless we agree to the EU’s terms, the EU will use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea. We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI.

“I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the UK, to cut it off, or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK.” 

The Prime Minister said any such barrier would be “completely contrary to the letter and the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement” because undermining the Union “would seriously endanger peace and stability in Northern Ireland”.

He added: “This interpretation cannot have been the real intention of those who framed the protocol (it certainly wasn’t ours) – and it is therefore vital that we close that option down.”

Mr Johnson said he hoped the UK-EU Joint Committee – led on the UK side by Michael Gove (watch Mr Gove updating MPs on Brexit in the video below) and set up to thrash out technical details of the Withdrawal Agreement, which is separate from any trade deal – will be able to agree on a solution.

But he said “we cannot leave the theoretical power to carve up our country – to divide it – in the hands of an international organisation. We have to protect the UK from that disaster, and that is why we have devised a legal safety net – in the UK Internal Market Bill – to clarify the position and to sort out the inconsistencies.”

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Downing Street argues that the EU’s interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement would give it the power to interfere in the UK state aid regime and to decide which goods crossing the Irish Sea should be subject to checks.

Mr Johnson told MPs his Bill would ensure that goods crossing the Irish Sea are not subject to unnecessary checks or tariffs.

On Friday a group of more than a dozen MPs, among them former ministers, signalled that they would press ahead with attempts to bar the Government from overriding the Withdrawal Agreement without the support of Parliament (see video below).

They intend to defy the whip and back an amendment tabled by Sir Bob Neill, the chairman of the Commons justice committee, who has already secured the backing of Damian Green, Theresa May’s former deputy, and ex-solicitor general Sir Oliver Heald.

Mel Stride, a former Treasury minister, said he would be surprised if the legislation survived without “very significant amendment”, adding: “When we have a minister standing up at the despatch box saying we will be prepared to break an international treaty, that is a moment when you hold your breath a bit.”

The scale of the backbench criticism is believed to have alarmed Number 10 and forced the Government’s Whips’ Office to begin reaching out to MPs deemed “at risk” of rebelling.

One MP contacted by their whip told The Telegraph Downing Street was “clearly worried” by the number of MPs speaking out. Another said: “I made it very clear [to my whip] that there hasn’t been a sensible explanation of why we’re pulling this stunt, given the damage it will do.”

Mr Johnson will hope his article, and the explanation he gave to MPs in a Zoom meeting on Friday, will have answered their questions.

He wrote: “We must get this Bill through. So I say to my fellow parliamentarians that we cannot go back to the dark days of last year – the squabbling that so undermined our negotiators. If we fail to pass this Bill, or if we weaken its protections, then we will in fact reduce the chances of getting that Canada-style deal.”

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Senior Government sources on Friday accused Mr Barnier, Brussels’ chief negotiator, of issuing an “explicit threat” to deny the UK approved third-party status for food exports in the event of no trade deal.

Failure to issue the status, which is granted to non-EU countries and acknowledges that their agricultural systems meet basic standards, could also cause major complications for sending live animals or meat products to Northern Ireland after the transition period ends.

Meanwhile, European Parliament leaders representing the majority of MEPs on Friday threatened to veto any future UK-EU trade deal unless Mr Johnson withdrew legislation seeking to alter parts of the Withdrawal Agreement (see Q&A below).

In a statement, the pro-EU groups said that if the UK pressed ahead with the Internal Market Bill “in its current form” they would “under no circumstances ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK”.

However, British officials on Friday dismissed threats by Brussels to walk away from trade talks, with a senior figure close to the negotiations saying there had been “more productive” discussions this week than in previous sessions.

They also suggested that the legislation – which ministers admitted breaks international law in a “specific and limited way” – may have salvaged a trade deal rather than increasing the chances of no deal.

UK officials are now confident that they have got EU leaders’ attention at an earlier stage of the talks than they would otherwise have done.

With the two sides due to meet again in Brussels this week, they added that the basis for a deal by mid-October remained.

What do you think of the PM’s decision to alter the Brexit divorce deal? Join the conversation in the comments below.


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