Michel Barnier today urged Boris Johnson to ‘stick to facts’ on Brexit as relations between the EU and UK further deteriorated over the Prime Minister’s plans to tear up parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU’s top negotiator said the two sides had agreed to a ‘delicate compromise’ last year and the bloc ‘could not have been clearer about the consequences of Brexit’.
His intervention came as Justice Secretary Robert Buckland said he will resign if the Government breaks the rule of law ‘in a way that I find unacceptable’ over Brexit.
Mr Buckland said Mr Johnson’s plans to override parts of the EU divorce deal were just an ‘insurance policy’ and ‘this isn’t something that we actually want to have to use’.
He said he hoped the UK and the EU will be able to agree on crunch issues contained within the Withdrawal Agreement but as a ‘responsible government’ action must be taken just in case talks break down.
Ministers have admitted the Prime Minister’s proposals will break international law if they are implemented but the Justice Secretary said he does not believe ‘we’re going to get to that stage’.
Mr Buckland, who as Lord Chancellor has taken an oath to protect the rule of law, was repeatedly asked this morning if he will quit if the Government does breach its legal obligations.
His caveated response that he will quit if the rule of law is ‘broken in a way that I find unacceptable’ instantly caused controversy in legal circles as he was accused of ‘putting career before country’.
The EU has given Mr Johnson until the end of the month to withdraw his plans or face legal action, with trade talks also expected to collapse if the PM does not perform a U-turn.
But the Government has insisted it has no intention of backing town, putting Britain and the bloc on a collision course.
Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney this morning accused Number 10 of using ‘inflammatory language’ and of putting out ‘spin and not the truth’ on Brexit.
Michel Barnier, pictured in London on September 10, today urged Boris Johnson to ‘stick to the facts’ on Brexit
Tony Blair and Sir John Major unite to savage Boris Johnson’s Brexit plans
The two former prime ministers united to launch an attack on the current occupant of 10 Downing Street as they urged Parliament to block Mr Johnson’s plans.
Mr Blair and Sir John said the PM’s decision to try to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement struck with the EU last year imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.
Writing in The Sunday Times, Mr Blair and Sir John said that what Mr Johnson is proposing to do is ‘shocking’.
They warned it will be impossible to ‘salvage’ Britain’s ‘credibility’ if ministers ‘so blatantly disregard our commitments the moment we sign them’.
The Government has argued that the proposals are necessary in order to protect the integrity of the UK and the Good Friday Agreement.
But Mr Blair and Sir John, two of the architects of the landmark peace accord, said the ‘Government’s action does not protect the Good Friday agreement – it imperils it’.
The pair of former PMs wrote: ‘We both opposed Brexit. We both accept it is happening. But this way of negotiating, with reason cast aside and cavalier bombast posing as serious diplomacy, is irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice.
‘It raises questions that go far beyond the impact on Ireland, the peace process and talks on a trade deal, crucial though they are. It questions the very integrity of our nation.’
They added: ‘As the world looks on aghast at the UK, the word of which was once accepted as inviolable, this government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation.’
The latest row with the EU was sparked by the publication of the Government’s UK Internal Market Bill.
The legislation, which the Government is hoping to crash through the House of Commons in the next two weeks, will enable the UK to unilaterally make decisions on key issues, like customs arrangements between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland, contained within the Withdrawal Agreement.
Brussels is adamant that the decisions must be made by a joint committee made up of people from both sides.
But the Government argues the proposals are necessary in order to protect the integrity of the UK.
Mr Barnier today rejected that argument as he also dismissed UK claims that the EU could ban British food exports to the bloc if no trade deal is agreed by the end of the year.
He said the so-called Northern Ireland protocol ‘is not a threat to the integrity of the UK’.
‘We agreed this delicate compromise with Boris Johnson and his gov in order to protect peace and stability on island of Ireland,’ he tweeted.
‘We could not have been clearer about the consequences of Brexit.
‘Sticking to facts is also essential. A case in point: EU is not refusing to list UK as a third country for food imports.
‘To be listed, we need to know in full what a country’s rules are, incl for imports. The same objective process applies to all listed countries.’
Critics have claimed that rowing back on the Withdrawal Agreement will damage the UK’s reputation as a trustworthy nation.
Asked why any country should trust the UK if it is prepared to depart from an accord it agreed less than a year ago, Mr Buckland said the hope is that the offending measures will never have to be used.
He told Sky News: ‘What we are doing is making sure that if the joint committee negotiations about the [Northern Ireland] protocol fail, and there is still a way to go when it comes to that, we have an insurance policy here in the UK to make sure that any conflicts, any disagreements are not against the interests of the internal market of the United Kingdom, the sovereignty of our own country.
‘This isn’t something that we do lightly, this isn’t something that we actually want to have to use.
‘This is something that a responsible government does in order to prepare for the worst.
‘But can I reiterate our steely determination to get a deal, not just the free trade deal but the agreement on the protocol to make sure that it works in the interests of the Republic of Ireland, in the interests of the United Kingdom and most importantly in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland.’
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted last week the UK’s plans to override the Withdrawal Agreement will ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.
Mr Buckland was repeatedly asked if he will resign if the Government breaks international law during an interview on the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show.
He said: ‘If I see the rule of law being broken in a way that I find unacceptable then of course I will go.
‘I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage. I know in my mind what I have to do.’
He said the legislation was a ‘break the glass in emergency provision if we need it’.
Shadow justice secretary David Lammy accused Mr Buckland of ‘putting career before country’.
He tweeted: ‘Each time the government breaks the law it’s a travesty. By ignoring this, the Lord Chancellor is putting career before country.’
The Lib Dems said Mr Buckland’s comments suggested the Government views adherence to the law as being ‘optional’.
The party’s justice spokesman Wera Hobhouse said: ‘As Lord Chancellor, Robert Buckland swore an oath to respect the rule of law.
‘It is utterly appalling to see him shrug his shoulders like this when the Conservative Government is preparing to break it. It seems that under Boris Johnson, accepting the rule of law has become optional.’
Labour ‘will only support PM’s Brexit plans if they do not break international law’
The Labour leader said his party is willing to support Mr Johnson’s new Brexit legislation if he addresses ‘substantial cross-party concerns’.
Sir Keir also accused the Prime Minister of having ‘turned the clock back’ and of ‘reigniting old rows’ by working to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement which he agreed with the EU last year.
Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he said: ‘We should be getting on with defeating this virus, not banging on about Europe. Get on with Brexit and defeat the virus. That should be the Government’s mantra.
‘Labour is prepared to play its part in making that happen. If the Government fixes the substantial cross-party concerns that have been raised about the Internal Market Bill, then we are prepared to back it.
‘But if it does not, and the talks collapse, then it is its failure and incompetence that will have let the British people down.’
However, the changes necessary to win Labour’s support are understood to be major, with it needing to no longer risk breaching international law and to address devolved administrations concerns of a Westminster ‘power grab’.
Mr Buckland had earlier refused to be drawn on whether he would resign, telling Sky News: ‘It is not a question about me or my position. The whole government is actually committed to the rule of law.
‘I as Lord Chancellor of course speak more chiefly for the government on those general issues.
‘I can assure you that what we are doing is in accordance with I think actually the most honourable traditions of the British state which is to alert everyone to the possibility of a problem, to actually legislation and prepare ourselves domestically for that.
‘But to make the point we are not at that stage yet and we don’t have to be. If all parties come together and work with a will to get these provisions agreed then we won’t need these clauses at all. That is the government’s sincere wish. We are 100 per cent committed to these negotiations.’
Mr Buckland also argued that international law is different to domestic law after it was suggested the Government’s position amounted to a criminal saying they have bought a balaclava and a crowbar but they hope not to have to burgle a house.
The Justice Secretary said: ‘I think analogies with criminal law are wholly misplaced. What we are talking about here is intricate international law arrangements.’
Mr Buckland denied the suggestion he is being ‘played’ by Mr Johnson. He said: ‘I’ve been in politics a long time and I’m old enough and ugly enough to know when I’m being played and I can tell you the Prime Minister knows my strong views about the need to work positively with our European neighbours.’
Mr Coveney today rejected claims that the EU could try to blockade goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland because of a disagreement over customs rules.
He said: ‘There is no blockade proposed and that is the kind of inflammatory language coming from Number 10 which is spin and not the truth.’
Fears of the EU trying to punish the UK over the PM’s Brexit plans have prompted the Government to start planning for a potential trade war with the bloc, it was claimed today.
A Government document marked ‘Official-Sensitive’ bans ministers from saying ‘in spite of Brexit’
No10’s secret crib sheet for Ministers who can’t be trusted to say the right thing on EU talks
A confidential crib sheet, marked ‘Official – Sensitive’, tells them precisely what words and expressions to use – even telling them to stop saying ‘Brexit’ because that has now been achieved.
The memo, dated September 8, says the word can now be used only ‘as a historical event that took place on January 31, 2020’.
But it also seeks to contrast Mr Johnson’s new tougher approach with predecessor Theresa May’s –by ordering Ministers not to repeat her preferred ‘deep and special partnership’ description of our future relationship with the EU.
Instead, they are told to stress that in future ‘the EU will be one of many partners. Stick to the phrase “friendly co-operation between sovereign equals” ’.
The ‘stay on message memo’ comes as the Prime Minister faces threats of legal action from Brussels and a growing revolt from some senior Tories over controversial legislation which will over-rule parts of his own Brexit deal and flout international law.
The Sunday Express reported the Government is ‘considering all options’ so it is prepared if Brussels does adopt a hostile approach. Proposals could see the UK impose tariffs on key EU exports like French Champagne and German car manufacturers.
Mr Johnson is facing mounting criticism from across the political spectrum over his plans to depart from parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The PM is facing a rebellion from up to 30 Tory MPs who are furious at the Government’s proposals to break international law.
Meanwhile, former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair have united to urge MPs to reject the legislation, saying it imperils the Irish peace process, trade negotiations and the UK’s integrity.
Labour’s shadow minister for the Cabinet Office, Rachel Reeves, today said the party’s MPs will vote against the UK Internal Market Bill if clauses overriding the Withdrawal Agreement are not removed.
‘Tomorrow, the Bill as it stands, the Labour Party, and it looks like a large number of Conservative MPs, will not be able to support it because I cannot go through and Keir Starmer cannot go through the division lobbies knowing that we are deliberately and consciously breaking international law,’ she told the BBC.
Sir Keir has said that if the clauses are removed then Labour would be willing to support the Bill which aims to prepare the UK for life outside the EU.