Northern Ireland news

Brexit: Controversial bill 'overriding key elements of Withdrawal Agreement' to be laid before parliament tomorrow

The previously agreed Northern Ireland Protocol would see the region continue to follow some EU rules after December 31 to ensure there is no hard border. Picture by Liam McBurney/PA Wire

THE British government is denying new Brexit legislation being tabled tomorrow will see it backtrack on commitments it made in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Critics say the Internal Market Bill could override key elements of the treaty which sealed the UK's departure from the bloc in January.

Details of the bill were leaked to the Financial Times at the start of fresh negotiations which have been set a five-week deadline by Prime Minister Boris Johnson to reach a free trade deal or face no deal when the current transition period ends at the end of the year.

The new legislation's provisions are reported to override the legal power of the Withdrawal Agreement in key areas including state aid and Northern Ireland customs.

The previously agreed Northern Ireland Protocol would see the region continue to follow some EU rules after December 31 to ensure there is no hard border.

The new bill would ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market while making clear EU state aid rules - which will continue to apply in the north - will not apply elsewhere.

Meanwhile, an amendment to the Finance Bill would give ministers the power to designate which goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are considered "at risk" of entering the EU single market and are therefore liable to EU tariffs.

Despite dismay from senior EU and Irish government figures and a furious reaction from the north's Remain parties, Downing Street has insisted the new legislation is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if it cannot secure the free trade deal.

The Prime Minister's official spokesman said the proposals are for "limited clarifications" to domestic law to ensure ministers can preserve the gains of the Good Friday Agreement.

He described it as a necessary "safety net" made up of "limited and reasonable steps" which would "removed any ambiguity".

"As a responsible Government, we cannot allow the peace process or the UK's internal market to inadvertently be compromised by unintended consequences of the protocol," the spokesman said.

"... We are fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol and we have already taken many practical steps to do" he said.

A UK official said without the changes "we face the prospect of legal confusion at the end of the year and potentially extremely damaging defaults, including tariffs on goods moving from GB to Northern Ireland".

However, European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned the "protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island and integrity of the single market".

"I trust the British Government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership."

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told French radio that honouring the Withdrawal Agreement was "a pre-condition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected".

Former chancellor Philip Hammond said that overriding the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with any UK legislation would be “an incredibly dangerous step”.

He tweeted: “Let’s be clear on two points: 1) Leaving without a deal would not be a ‘good outcome for the UK’; nor would it be the outcome Boris and the Brexiteers promised.”

He added: “2) The UK is a rule-of-law state, and attempting to legislate domestically to override international law would be an incredibly dangerous step and bound to lead to conflict with the judiciary. It would also hugely damage our standing on the world stage.”

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