The European Union warned Britain on Wednesday that even the most minor breach of the Brexit withdrawal treaty would undermine what little trust is left between the two sides in already fragile trade talks.
“Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship,” European Council President Charles Michel said.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the age-old diplomatic cornerstone of “agreements must be kept” was “the foundation of prosperous future relations.”
The warnings came as the U.K. government published legislation that it admits breaks international law by overriding parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement that both Britain and the EU signed up to.
The move has stunned and angered the EU. EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said that even for a bloc that has international agreements with countless countries and orranizations, it would be “an unprecedented situation.”
“The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and that we expect that the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement will be fully respected,” he said.
Michel stressed that the deal had been “concluded and ratified by both sides. It has to be applied in full.“
The Internal Market Bill is designed to ensure there are no barriers to trade within the United Kingdom after the country leaves the European Union’s economic framework at the end of the year. The U.K. government says the legislation is a “safety net” designed to prevent disruption to internal U.K. trade in the event that the U.K. and the EU do not reach an agreement by the end of the year.
The diplomatic standoff coincided with a new round of negotiations in London on a future trade relationship.
Though the U.K. left the bloc on Jan. 31, it is in a transition period that effectively sees it abide by EU rules until the end of this year. The discussions are about agreeing the broad outlines of the trading relationship from the start of 2021.
Both sides are gloomy about a breakthrough on the key differences: competition rules and fishing rights. Johnson has said Britain will walk away if there is no agreement by Oct. 15.
EU officials have said any attempt to override the international treaty could jeopardize peace in Northern Ireland as well as undermine the chances of any trade deal.
The withdrawal agreement that has already been signed and ratified includes measures to ensure there are no barriers to trade or travel between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and EU member Ireland. To do that, Britain has agreed that Northern Ireland will continue to follow some EU rules even after the rest of the U.K. goes it is own way. That means there will be checks on some goods moving from the rest of the U.K. to Northern Ireland, with tariffs applied on any that are headed for the EU.
The future trade discussions have made very little progress over the summer, with the two sides seemingly wide apart on several issues, notably on business regulations, the extent to which the U.K. can support certain industries and over the EU fishing fleet’s access to British waters.
The EU has been particularly insistent on level playing field issues in order to ensure that British-based businesses don’t have an unfair advantage as a result of laxer social, environmental or subsidy rules in the U.K.