BRUSSELS / LONDON (Reuters) – The head of the European Commission said on Wednesday that the chances of reaching a trade agreement with Britain are disappearing for the day as the British government moves forward with steps that would violate their divorce treaty.
The British government announced draft legislation last week, which it acknowledges would be in breach of its international legal obligations and sign parts of the divorce agreement it signed before Britain formally left the European Union in January.
Brussels wants Prime Minister Boris Johnson to scrap the so-called Internal Market Act, saying it could sink negotiations on future trade arrangements before Britain finally leaves the EU circuit when a status quo transition period ends in December.
Johnson has refused.
“With each passing day, the chances of a timely agreement begin to fade,”
In a speech to the European Parliament, she said that the divorce agreement “can not be changed, ignored or not applied unilaterally”.
“This is a matter of law, trust and good faith … Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership,” she said.
The EU fears a disorderly Brexit if the terms of the trade relationship are not agreed, and former British prime ministers have said the crime is a step too far that undermines the country’s reputation.
Johnson has said the bill was crucial in addressing “absurd” threats from Brussels, including that London required trade barriers between Britain and the province of Northern Ireland, and that the EU would impose a food blockade. Such steps, he said, would threaten the unity of the United Kingdom.
Asked on Wednesday whether the EU was negotiating in good faith, Johnson said: “I do not think they are.”
“Maybe they want to prove my suspicion wrong,” Johnson said.
COMPRESS WITH REBELS
Johnson’s single market law has been criticized by senior members of his ruling Conservative party, and the former five prime ministers have also expressed concern about the damage it could do to Britain’s international status.
However, he appeared to have averted a revolt by conservative lawmakers, who may have tracked it down completely after accepting a compromise with them on Wednesday.[L8N2GD4RA]
“It agrees that the parliamentary procedure proposed by some colleagues provides a clearer and more explicit democratic mandate for the use of these powers and also provides more legal certainty,” the government and two of the rebel lawmakers said in a joint statement.
This means that Parliament will have to give its approval before ministers can use the powers that override the Brexit divorce agreement.
Earlier, Britain’s Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis told parliament he stood by remarks he made last week that the bill would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
But as a sign of continued unrest with the plans, Scotland’s leading legal adviser to the British government, Richard Keen, left his role, saying he could not reconcile his legal obligations with the government’s political intentions.
His resignation comes after the head of the British government’s legal department resigned last week due to the issue.
EU diplomatic sources told Reuters that if the bill was passed in its current form, Brussels felt it could not deal with London.
Additional reporting by Kate Holton, William James, Andy Bruce, Michael Holden and Alistair Smout, editing by Timothy Heritage, Kevin Liffey and Alexandra Hudson