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Brexit: Von der Leyen warns no deal if UK breaks 'international law' on Northern Ireland

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2020.   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Matt Dunham
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The European Union has warned the United Kingdom that any attempt to row back on its Brexit commitments could jeopardise a future trade agreement and put at risk hard-won peace on the island of Ireland.

It follows reports that Boris Johnson's government is planning to introduce domestic legislation that would override provisions concerning Northern Ireland contained in the legally-binding divorce deal, which set out the terms of the UK's departure from the EU last January.

The British Prime Minister has also threatened to pull the UK out of talks on the future relationship — which resume this week — unless a deal is struck by mid-October. A transition period keeping most current arrangements in place expires on December 31.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said in a tweet that implementing the Withdrawal Agreement was "an obligation under international law and a prerequisite for any future partnership".

The agreed arrangements for Ireland and Northern Ireland were "essential to protect peace and stability" as well as the "integrity of the single market", she added.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson issued a statement on Monday, confirming his warning that the UK is ready to walk out of trade talks if no agreement is struck by a European Council meeting on October 15.

"There is no sense in thinking about timelines that go beyond that point. If we can’t agree by then, then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should both accept that and move on," his statement reads.

The statement also repeated the prime minister's assertion that a no-deal exit from current terms — Johnson prefers to talk of "a trading arrangement with the EU like Australia’s" — "would be a good outcome for the UK".

With talks deadlocked, an agreement will only be possible if EU negotiators are prepared to "rethink their current positions", the prime minister added.

Irish border commitments called into question

The Financial Times newspaper reported on Monday that the government is planning domestic legislation that would water down commitments to maintaining an open border -- between the UK territory of Northern Ireland and EU member The Republic of Ireland -- that it has already signed up to.

Boris Johnson's statement did not mention the Northern Ireland Protocol contained in the divorce deal, seen as vital to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland, and which has the force of an international treaty.

'Remaining committed'

However, the prime minister's spokesman, James Slack, insisted that the government remains “fully committed” to the Withdrawal Agreement, and that this week's legislation is intended to clear up “ambiguity” and avoid “unintended consequences” in the complex border agreement.

Britain's environment secretary, George Eustice, also sought to downplay concerns that the government is seeking to tear up its treaty obligations and argued that the Internal Market Bill, due to be published on Wednesday, aims to tie up some “loose ends” where there was a need for "legal certainty".

He insisted that the government remained committed to the principles of the deal, which will see customs checks on some goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland.

Under the agreement, although Northern Ireland will leave the EU's Customs Union after the end of the transition period, in practice it will follow EU customs rules and be subject to EU oversight. It will also remain partially aligned to EU single market standards.

This effectively creates a new regulatory divide in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But the British government's insistence that trade will continue to be frictionless, and criticism of the state of preparations for new infrastructure, have called into question its commitment.

The British government has said it is working “in good faith” to implement the agreed border provisions but is “considering fallback options in the event this is not achieved". It has underlined the part of the Protocol which guarantees that Northern Ireland will have "unfettered access" to the UK's internal market.

EU call for clarification

The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator has said he will seek clarification from London about British intentions concerning the island of Ireland.

“This protocol is a condition for preserving peace and for protecting the integrity of the single market. It’s also a pre-condition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected,” Michel Barnier told French radio France Inter.

A source told Euronews: "The UK is trying to create chaos with the aim of getting a better deal than if they played ball. But they shouldn’t be messing about with Northern Ireland for tactics."

British Brexit supporters hate the agreement because it means keeping Northern Ireland aligned to some EU rules and regulations. But any move to undermine it would infuriate the EU and threaten the trade talks.

“This would be a very unwise way to proceed,” tweeted Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney.

Talks resume to try to break trade stalemate

British chief negotiator David Frost and his EU counterpart Michel Barnier are due to meet in London starting Tuesday for their eighth round of negotiations.

Barnier said last week he was “worried and disappointed” by the lack of progress and said the UK had not "engaged constructively".

Without a deal, the New Year will bring tariffs and other economic barriers between the UK and the bloc, its biggest trading partner. Johnson said the country would “prosper mightily” even if no deal was reached.

The key sticking points are European boats’ access to UK fishing waters and state aid to industries. The EU is determined to ensure a “level playing field” for competition so British firms can’t undercut the bloc’s environmental or workplace standards or distort competition by pumping public money into UK industries.

Britain accuses the bloc of making demands that it has not imposed on other countries it has free trade deals with, such as Canada.

Frost told the Mail on Sunday newspaper that Britain was “not going to compromise on the fundamentals of having control over our own laws".

“We are not going to accept level playing field provisions that lock us into the way the EU do things,” he said.

Regardless of whether a trade deal is struck, British freight firms have warned that "significant gaps" in UK preparations for new trading arrangements could bring logjams at ports, adding that supplies of key goods in Britain could be “severely disrupted" starting on January 1.

French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Sunday that talks were “not going well” and dismissed British attempts to drive a wedge between EU nations on issues such as fishing. Le Drian said the 27 nations remained united.

“We would prefer a deal, but a deal on the basis of our mandate,” he told France Inter radio. “There is room for action, but the whole package, including the fishing package, needs to be taken up in order to avoid a ‘no deal.’”

Britain left the now 27-nation European Union on January 31, three-and-a-half years after the country narrowly voted to end more than four decades of membership.