Thursday, August 11, 2022
Thursday, August 11, 2022
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Justice Secretary Robert Buckland has defended plans to potentially override the EU Withdrawal Agreement as an emergency Brexit “insurance policy”.

He told the BBC he hoped powers being sought by ministers in the Internal Market Bill would never be needed, as a solution could be found with the EU.

He said he would resign if the UK ended up breaking international law “in a way I find unacceptable”.

But he made clear he did “not believe we will get to that stage”.

The UK has insisted there must be no new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain when it leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on 1 January.

The Internal Market Bill, to be debated by MPs on Monday, would give ministers the power to reduce the amount of paperwork that Northern Irish firms have to fill in on goods bound for the mainland, such as export and exit declarations, or to remove the need for them entirely.

It would also allow the UK to modify or re-interpret “state aid” rules on subsidies for firms in Northern Ireland, in the event of the two sides not agreeing a future trade deal.

It is controversial because it would change the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, a crucial part of the legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement agreed by both sides prior to the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said the EU is interpreting the Protocol in a way that would impose a customs border in the Irish Sea, separating Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the EU could not have been “clearer” when the two sides agreed the Brexit withdrawal agreement last year what the implications would be for Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

‘Break the glass in an emergency’

Appearing on the BBC’s Andrew Marr, Mr Buckland said the government would only invoke the powers in the Bill if the two sides could not reach agreement through their dispute resolution process and if the EU then went on to act in an “unreasonable” way.

“I believe with our determination to seek an agreement, we will get a position where we don’t need to invoke these provisions. This is all about insurance planning, if you like, a break-the-glass-in-an-emergency provision”.

He acknowledged there was a “dichotomy” between the UK’s positions in domestic and international law but insisted he believed these would be resolved.

Pressed on whether he would quit if the UK did end up breaking international law, he replied: “If I see the rule of law being broken in a way which I find unacceptable, then of course I will go. We are not at that stage.”

He added: “I don’t believe we will get to that stage. I know in my mind what we have to do… We have to resolve any conflict and that is what we will do.”

Food exports row

But Irish foreign affairs minister Simon Coveney said the UK would be “reneging” on legally-binding commitments if the bill passed and rejected as “completely bogus” claims the Withdrawal Agreement was a threat to its territorial integrity and the Northern Irish peace process.

A further rift has opened up between the UK and EU over the issue of food exports to the continent from 1 January – when the current post-Brexit transition period ends.

Mr Barnier said it was not true the EU was threatening to effectively block products of animal origin from crossing the channel by withholding the “third country” licence granted to nations outside the bloc.

However, his British counterpart David Frost said the UK had not been given a guarantee that trade would continue as now.

In a series of messages on Twitter, the PM’s chief Brexit negotiator suggested under the EU’s proposed arrangements, British firms risked not being able to export food from the mainland to Northern Ireland either.

Although the government has a comfortable majority of 80 in the House of Commons, it is facing a rebellion from Tory backbenchers over the Internal Market Bill, and its passage through the Lords is far from guaranteed.

Pressure is mounting on those Conservative MPs who are sceptical about the legislation to oppose it in the Commons as well, with former prime ministers Tony Blair and Sir John Major calling it “shaming and embarrassing”.

Labour’s Brexit spokeswoman, Rachel Reeves, told the BBC the party could not support the bill “as it stands” because it would be “deliberately and consciously breaking international law”.

She told the Andrew Marr programme it would be “counter-productive” to the UK trying to achieve a free trade agreement with the EU and others around the world.

He added: “I don’t believe we will get to that stage. I know in my mind what we have to do… We have to resolve any conflict and that is what we will do.”

What is third country listing?

A ‘third country’ basically refers to any country outside the EU, and in this case outside its economic structures – the single market and the customs union.

Businesses in a third country have to fill in customs declarations, for example, when they import from and export to the EU – whether there is a trade agreement or not.

The EU also has a formal list of third countries that are approved for food imports – this is what third country listing means.

The UK government says the EU is threatening not to put the UK on that list. And because under the terms of the EU withdrawal agreement Northern Ireland will stay within the rules of the EU single market, but the rest of the UK will not, that could mean no food imports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

The EU says it is not refusing to put the UK on the third country list – it says it is simply waiting to find out what the UK’s import rules will be before it makes a decision.

The row over third country listing has become linked to the row over the government’s Internal Market Bill, even though the proposed legislation doesn’t mention third country listing directly.

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