Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove is heading to Brussels at the start of a week of talks about the UK’s future relationship with the European Union.
Mr Gove will meet European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic to discuss implementation of the Brexit divorce deal.
And on Tuesday formal negotiations will resume as the two sides attempt to agree a post-Brexit trade deal.
Last week the UK said a lot of work remains before a deal can be reached.
An EU spokesman said their chief negotiator Michel Barnier was neither optimistic nor pessimistic but determined to reach a deal.
The Brexit transition period, in which the UK has kept to EU trading rules, ends on 31 December. The UK and EU are yet to agree a deal that will govern their future trade.
The last set of talks between the two sides ended acrimoniously when the UK government introduced the Internal Market Bill which would allow the UK to override parts of the original Brexit divorce deal – known as the withdrawal agreement.
Mr Sefcovic said that if the bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an “extremely serious violation” of the withdrawal agreement and of international law.
He urged the government to withdraw the bill “by the end of the month”, adding that 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”.
The UK government said it would “discharge its treaty obligations in good faith”, but added that “it is important to remember the fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty.”
The bill has not been withdrawn and is set to be debated by MPs on Tuesday.
Other long-running sticking points that could stymie negotiations include state aid and fishing access.
During this week’s talks, negotiators will also discuss law enforcement and transport. The two chief negotiators – the EU’s Mr Barnier and the UK’s David Frost will meet on Friday morning.
BBC political correspondent Chris Mason said sources in government say that while progress is being made, there are “fundamental gaps” between the two sides and talk of “optimism” in recent days has been overstated.
If the sides fail to reach a deal by the end of the year, the UK would trade with the EU on World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.
This would mean tariffs would be applied to most goods which UK businesses send to the EU, making UK goods more expensive and harder to sell in Europe.
A post-Brexit trade deal “can and must be made”, the organisation representing British businesses has said ahead of further UK-EU trade talks on Monday.
Dame Carolyn Fairbairn, the boss of the Confederation of British Industry, said it was the time for “the spirit of compromise to shine through”.
The Brexit transition period, in which the UK has kept to EU trading rules, ends on 31 December.
The UK and EU are yet to agree a deal that will govern their future trade.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said a trade agreement with the EU must be done by 15 October if it is going to be ready for the start of 2021.
But despite this, talks have run into problems. There are still key points of disagreement – including, for example, on fishing.
The next official round of talks – the ninth since March – begins on 28 September.
The CBI carried out a survey of 648 companies which found only 4% said they would prefer no deal to be agreed on trade.
And half of firms said the impact of dealing with the coronavirus had negatively affected their preparations for next year, when the transition period ends.
“Next week Brexit talks enter the 11th hour,” said Dame Carolyn. “Now must be the time for political leadership and the spirit of compromise to shine through on both sides. A deal can and must be made.
“Businesses face a hat-trick of unprecedented challenges – rebuilding from the first wave of Covid-19, dealing with the resurgence of the virus and preparing for significant changes to the UK’s trading relationship with the EU.”
She added: “A good deal will provide the strongest possible foundation as countries build back from the pandemic.
“It would keep UK firms competitive by minimising red tape and extra costs, freeing much-needed time and resource to overcome the difficult times ahead.”
Michael Gove has defended plans to override parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as a means of protecting the “integrity” of the UK.
The Cabinet Office minister said the UK was being “generous” with the EU over the Brexit negotiations.
The EU has threatened legal action over the Internal Market Bill, which ministers say will break international law in a “specific and limited way”.
PM Boris Johnson is urging Tory MPs to back it, after some raised concerns.
The bill, which will be formally debated in the House of Commons for the first time on Monday, addresses the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement designed to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland.
If this became law it would give UK ministers powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland that will come into force from 1 January, if the UK and EU are unable to strike a trade deal.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the Commons the bill, which would go against the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK and EU, would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
But Mr Gove said the attorney general had said the proposal would be consistent with the rule of law – and that it was important to have an “insurance policy”.
He insisted the government was being “proportionate and generous” in its approach to the EU talks.
Mr Gove said: “These steps are a safety net, they’re a long-stop in the event, which I don’t believe will come about but we do need to be ready for, that the EU follow through on what some have said they might do which is, in effect, to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
While admitting it was a “crunch moment”, he insisted “we have got the support of our own MPs”.
No more ‘miserable squabbling’
The EU and UK have less than five weeks to agree a deal before Mr Johnson’s 15 October deadline – after which he says he is prepared to “walk away”.
Informal talks are due to resume on Monday, with the next official round of talks – the ninth since March – starting in Brussels on 28 September.
The EU says the planned changes must be scrapped or they risk jeopardising the UK-EU trade talks and the European Parliament says will “under no circumstances ratify” any trade deal reached between the UK and EU if the “UK authorities breach or threaten to breach” the Withdrawal Agreement.
Conservative backbencher Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee, said he was not reassured by the prime minister’s Zoom call. He is tabling an amendment to the bill to try to force a separate parliamentary vote on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“I believe it is potentially a harmful act for this country, it would damage our reputation and I think it will make it harder to strike trade deals going forward,” he said.
And on Saturday, Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood – who is chairman of the Defence Select Committee – also voiced his concern.
“I don’t want us to lose our way, to lose our reputation as a force for good, as an exemplar holding up the international rule of law,” he said.
“I’m afraid that’s where I find myself not wishing to support this particular bill, because it does mean that we would be challenging unilaterally a Treaty. And that goes against the principle of everything we stand for.”
Former Conservative party leaders Theresa May, Lord Howard and Sir John Major are also among senior figures urging Mr Johnson to think again.
Both Ireland and the EU have warned that Mr Johnson’s plans pose a serious risk to the peace process rather than protecting the Good Friday Agreement, as the government claims.
Writing that it had become clear there might be a “serious misunderstanding” between the UK and EU over the Withdrawal Agreement, Mr Johnson said the UK must be protected from what he called a “disaster” of the EU being able to “carve up our country” and “endanger peace and stability in Northern Ireland”.
He said there was still a “very good chance” of the UK and EU striking a deal by mid-October similar to that previously agreed between the EU and Canada – which got rid of most, but not all, tariffs on goods.
But in a column in the Daily Telegraph, he accused the EU of adopting an “extreme” interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to impose “a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea” that could stop the transport of food from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it would be “irrational” not to allow the transportation of food in such a way, which would happen if the UK was not granted third-country listing. Such a listing is needed for the export of food.
Boris Johnson has urged MPs to support a bill which modifies the Brexit deal he signed with the EU in January.
The PM said the Internal Markets Bill would “ensure the integrity of the UK internal market” and hand power to Scotland and Wales.
He also claimed it would protect the Northern Ireland peace process.
Critics say the move will damage the UK’s international standing after a minister admitted the plans break international law.
The Scottish government has not ruled out legal action to prevent it becoming law.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The Tories’ proposed bill for a so-called UK internal market is an abomination. It is a naked power grab which would cripple devolution.”
The Taoiseach (Ireland’s prime minister) Micheál Martin has spoken to Mr Johnson “in forthright terms” about “the breach of an international treaty, the absence of bilateral engagement and the serious implications for Northern Ireland”, the Irish government said.
Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove will hold emergency talks in London on Thursday with EU Commissioner Maros Sefcovic to discuss the contents of the bill.
The European Commission had requested a meeting as soon as possible to clarify what the legislation means for the Brexit deal.
Downing Street said the EU Withdrawal Agreement – repeatedly described as “oven ready” by Mr Johnson during last year’s general election – contained “ambiguities” and lacked clarity in “key areas”.
The PM’s spokesman said it had been agreed “at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances” to “deliver on a decision by the British people”.
It had been signed “on the assumption that subsequent agreements to clarify these aspects could be reached”, the spokesman added.
It comes as talks on securing a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU continue in London.
Remit of the bill
The new bill sets out rules for the operation of the UK internal market – trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – after the end of the Brexit transition period in January.
No new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of Great Britain
Giving UK ministers powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods that will come into force from 1 January if the UK and EU are unable to reach an alternative agreement through a trade deal
Powers to override previously agreed obligations on state aid – government support for businesses
The bill explicitly states that these powers should apply even if they are incompatible with international law.
Ministers say the legislation is needed to prevent “damaging” tariffs on goods travelling from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland if negotiations with the EU on a free trade agreement fail.
But senior Conservatives have warned it risks undermining the UK’s reputation as an upholder of international law.
Former Prime Minister Sir John Major said: “For generations, Britain’s word – solemnly given – has been accepted by friend and foe. Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct.”
He added: “If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer urged the government to consider “the reputational risk that it’s taking in the proposed way forward”.
But Sir Keir – who campaigned for a second Brexit referendum – added that the “way forward” now was to get a trade deal, adding “if you fail to get a deal. prime minister, you own that failure”.
“The outstanding issues are not difficult. They can be resolved. So what I say to the prime minister is, you promised a good deal, get on, negotiate it,” he added.
“That’s what’s in the national interest and focus then on the issue in hand which is tackling this pandemic.”
In the withdrawal agreement with the EU, Northern Ireland is still in the UK, but it has to follow elements of the EU’s customs code.
This bill will be seen by the EU as a pretty brazen attempt to override the deal that has been done.
The bill contains the words “notwithstanding” – that basically means this law sets aside a law we have already agreed.
That was described to me earlier in the week as being a completely nuclear option.
And they have pressed it.
This row isn’t going to go away.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which has been pressing for changes to the Withdrawal Agreement, said the bill was a “step forward” but the government must ensure Northern Ireland is not “restrained in a state aid straight jacket unlike the rest of the UK”.
But the deputy first minister of Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’ Neill, said the Withdrawal Agreement protected the Good Friday Agreement and it was “astounding” the UK government “thinks its fine” to wreck an international treaty they had signed up to.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said: “My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK but also to protect the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement.
“And to do that, we need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the Protocol, which could lead to a border down the Irish Sea, in a way that I believe would be prejudicial to the interests of the Good Friday Agreement and prejudicial to the interests of peace in our country. And that has to be our priority.”
Commenting on a similar argument by Health Secretary Matt Hancock, a former minister told the BBC: “I cannot allow anyone to get away with saying the government is doing this to protect the peace process. This does the precise opposite.”
The legislation will see Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland handed powers in areas such as air quality and building efficiency currently regulated at EU level.
It will also set up a new body – the Office for the Internal Market – to make sure standards adopted in different parts of the UK do not undermine cross-border trade.
The Scottish government fears the UK single market will cut across areas that are usually devolved.
For example, if the UK government decides some food imports are acceptable in England then they would also be allowed in Scotland, even though agriculture is devolved.
The new body will be able to issue non-binding recommendations to the UK Parliament and devolved administrations when clashes emerge.
The SNP’s leader at Westminster, Ian Blackford described the Internal Markets Bill as “nothing short of an attack on Scotland’s parliament and an affront to people of Scotland”.
Mr Johnson said the bill would protect jobs and growth – and was a “massive devolutionary act” that would represent a “very substantial transfer of power and sovereignty” to Scotland and Wales.
Scottish polling shows a majority favor independence. The prime minister is concerned.
LONDON — Barely six months after Britain broke away from the European Union, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is increasingly consumed with trying to stop the breakaway of restive parts of the United Kingdom.
On Friday, Mr. Johnson sent his popular Treasury chief, Rishi Sunak, to Scotland, to tamp down nationalist sentiment that has surged there in recent months. Another top minister, Michael Gove, went to Northern Ireland with nearly $500 million in aid to help frustrated companies deal with new checks on shipped goods.
Experts have long predicted that Brexit would strengthen centrifugal forces that were pulling apart the union. But in Scotland, in particular, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated those forces, forcing Mr. Johnson to mount an elaborate — some say belated — charm offensive with the Scottish public.
The situation is less acute in Northern Ireland, where reunification with the Republic of Ireland still seems a distant prospect. Yet businesspeople there, including those loyal to London, worry they will be hurt by a costly, bureaucratic trading system between Northern Ireland and the rest of the union.
Mr. Sunak, who as chancellor of the Exchequer is coordinating the British government’s economic rescue effort in response to the coronavirus, noted that 65,000 Scottish firms were getting 2 billion pounds ($2.6 billion) in loans to survive the lockdown. The pandemic, he said, had reaffirmed the enduring value of the union.
“If I look at the last few months, to me that is a good example of the union working really well,” Mr. Sunak said, after touring a factory in Glasgow that makes generators. He brushed aside questions about independence, saying, “I don’t think now is the time to be talking about these constitutional questions.”
The problem is: A majority of the Scottish public seems to disagree. In an average of recent polls, 52.5 percent of people say they would vote for Scottish independence. That is a dramatic swing from the 2014 referendum on independence, when Scots voted to stay in the union by 55.3 percent to 44.7 percent.
It is also the first time the polls have consistently shown a majority for breaking away, said John Curtice, a professor of politics at the University of Strathclyde and Britain’s leading expert on polling.
The numbers have clearly alarmed the government. Mr. Sunak is the fourth cabinet minister to visit Scotland in the last month — a list that has included Mr. Gove and the prime minister himself.
“The U.K. government is sufficiently worried that it is sending people north on a regular basis,” Professor Curtice said. “London may only have woken up to this in the last couple of weeks, but it’s a long-running story.”
Nationalist sentiment was already building last year, Professor Curtice said, as Britain hammered out a withdrawal agreement with the European Union. Scots voted overwhelmingly to stay in the European Union during the 2016 Brexit referendum.
Under the terms of limited self-government in the United Kingdom, Scottish authorities are responsible for matters like public health, while the British government handles immigration, foreign policy and, importantly, Mr. Sunak’s rescue packages to protect those who lost their jobs in the lockdown.
Scotland’s overall performance during the pandemic is open to debate; it is far smaller and more sparsely populated than England. Some epidemiologists say it ranks in the middle of European countries in dealing with the virus.
Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is far more popular in polls than Mr. Johnson, and her Scottish National Party stands to run up a huge mandate in parliamentary elections next May. That would make it harder for Mr. Johnson to refuse a Scottish demand to hold another referendum.
Political analysts said the Scottish National Party’s strategy has long been clear: to appeal to people who voted to remain in the United Kingdom in 2014, but also to stay in the European Union two years later.
“To wait until the polls shifted in Scotland was strikingly naïve,” said Anand Menon, a professor of European politics at Kings College London, referring to Mr. Johnson’s effort to woo the Scots. “The question is, whether this frantic activity is too little, too late.”
Mr. Gove, who holds the title of chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, faced a different dilemma in Northern Ireland. Britain’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union, analysts said, actually helped ease nationalist tensions because it preserved an open border between north and south on the island of Ireland.
But the deal came with a trade-off. Instead of bisecting Ireland, the border will effectively run up and down the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland, though part of the British customs territory, will adhere to a maze of European Union rules and regulations, which means goods shipped from England, Scotland and Wales will require customs checks.
Mr. Gove said the British government would pay £200 million ($260 million) to defray the cost of this paperwork for companies and £155 million ($202 million) for a new “light touch” technology system to streamline the process.
His words, analysts said, were designed primarily to soothe unionists, who worry that Brexit will distance Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom and hasten its eventual reunification with the Irish republic. In assuaging the unionists, however, they said he would antagonize nationalists, whose emphasis is on fortifying Northern Ireland’s connection with the south.
“Michael Gove is a smooth talker, but nationalists wouldn’t believe a word that would come out of his mouth,” said Monica McWilliams, an academic and former politician in Belfast. “Those who voted against Brexit won’t be convinced by him, even if he is handing out pieces of candy.”
In a week shadowed by the death of John Hume, the Nobel Peace Prize-winner and architect of the Northern Irish peace process, the reunification of Ireland is not an immediate concern for Mr. Johnson’s Conservative government. But in both countries, the prime minister faces building pressures.
To some analysts, it exposes a contradiction at the heart of Mr. Johnson’s unrelenting drive to leave the European Union.
“You had a Brexit that took no account of the wishes of people in Scotland or Northern Ireland,” said Bobby McDonagh, a former Irish ambassador to Britain. “But that exists in parallel with a Conservative Party that celebrates the United Kingdom.”
Almost halfway through the Brexit transition period, both sides agree no real progress has been made.
It’s now time, negotiators say, for political leaders to get talks going again.
While top level officials on both sides of the Channel were focused on the coronavirus pandemic the last couple of months, they will now need to make a little space for Brexit once again after the fourth round of talks on the future relationship between the U.K. and the EU ended in deadlock on Friday. Major stumbling blocks remain — the level playing field of rules and standards, governance and fisheries.
“I don’t think we can go on like this forever,” the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said, while his U.K. counterpart David Frost added: “We are now at an important moment for these talks.”
Both sides will now look to the second half of the year for a deal under the auspices of the German presidency of the Council of the EU.
U.K. business lobby the Confederation of British Industry urged political leaders to intervene in order to prevent a “deeply damaging no deal.”
Deputy Director General Josh Hardie said: “An ambitious deal with the EU will be a cornerstone of the U.K.’s recovery from the pandemic. The stark reality is that most businesses are understandably unprepared for a dramatic change in trading relations with our biggest partner in just six months’ time.”
Here are the key dates to watch.
The two sides will take stock of progress after the first negotiating rounds at a so-called high-level conference in June, though no date has yet been set. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to meet European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel (and perhaps also European Parliament President David Sassoli) to inject some political momentum to move the process along.
Why this matters: This meeting was initially seen as a crucial point to discuss any extension to the transition period and if there wasn’t to be one, whether the U.K. would ditch negotiations because there wasn’t enough progress made; instead, Britain would focus on ending the Brexit transition period without a trade deal.
But the U.K. has repeatedly ruled out an extension. Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has also rejected the option of walking away from negotiations at this point, so June is not quite as important a cutoff date as it once looked.
However, the conference will still be a key moment to move the talks forward. “These negotiations now need some extra political momentum,” Barnier said Friday.
The U.K. hopes negotiations can continue more intensively during July, potentially with face-to-face meetings and smaller groups of officials. A U.K. senior negotiating official said every effort should be made to avoid talks extending into the fall. “We are not up for a long negotiation over the next months well into the autumn where nobody knows what is going to happen. October is too late for us to conclude this,” the official said.
Germany also takes over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in July.
Why this matters: Having rejected an extension to the Brexit transition beyond December, the U.K. wants to make sure a deal is reached as soon as possible so that businesses have time to prepare for the new arrangements.
For their part, Germany will be keen to avoid a Brexit mess on their watch. The U.K. seems to be counting on this, with Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove telling MPs this week: “I believe certainly with the advent of the German presidency of the European Union on July 1 that we will see the leadership required in order to guarantee that we secure the agreement we need.”
The EU wants to wrap up negotiations by the European Council summit on October 15-16 to provide sufficient time to ratify any agreement in both the European Parliament and the British parliament.
Why this matters: Brussels hopes that the time between the end of October and the end of the year will be sufficient for the ratification process. “In view of the necessary ratification processes, we need a result at the European Council in mid-October — you can’t go much further back than that,” German Ambassador to the EU Michael Clauß said mid-May.
But ratification could take longer if the EU has to involve national parliaments. If the deal includes areas that are beyond the EU’s competence, member countries can demand that their national (and some regional) parliaments must have a say.
The transition period ends on December 31.
Why this matters: If there’s no agreement, both sides risk a cliff edge of tariffs and trade barriers from January 2021. Free trade between the EU and the U.K. would fall back on the tariffs of the World Trade Organization. The combination of these barriers, along with delays caused by new customs checks, would be a major blow for trade between Britain and the bloc.