BRUSSELS (AP) — The 27 European Union nations presented a united front Friday on dealing with the United Kingdom and negotiating a trade deal after the British government said it plans to violate part of the Brexit divorce agreement signed by both sides less than a year ago.
EU leaders have expressed anger and bafflement at the U.K's announcement it will breach an international treaty with a bill that would diminish the EU’s oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. But they said the bloc would stand together as time runs short to find a smooth economic transition for Brexit by Dec. 31.
“We have never in recent history -- or, maybe in ancient history dealing with other countries -- seen such a renegement on an agreement," Ireland's Europe minister, Thomas Byrne, said. “It is unacceptable,” he told the BBC.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's plan to alter provisions in the EU divorce deal has put sluggish talks on a future trade deal in an even deeper rut.
A no-deal Brexit on Jan. 1 would hit some EU nations, including Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands especially hard. But none were ready to make concessions to U.K. demands, which the EU views as seeking free access to the EU market while refusing to guarantee fair competition.
“We will never accept any kind of decision that might weaken or jeopardize the European single market, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said.
“We have made very clear that all European countries remain united and strong," he added,
At a meeting of eurozone finance ministers in Berlin, all other comments made backed Le Maire's stance.
Ireland, which has the EU's only land border with the U.K., stands to lose the most in a breakdown of trade talks. Irish Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe welcomed “solidarity and support” from his colleagues in other EU countries.
The spat spilled over into a U.K-French-German meeting on Iran on Thursday, where according to German diplomats Foreign Minister Heiko Mass and his French colleague Jean-Yves Le Drian impressed upon British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab the importance of abiding by international treaties.
The British government has acknowledged it plans to breach international law with the Internal Market Bill, which would diminish the EU’s oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland — a fraught issue during Brexit negotiations — in the event the U.K. and the EU can't reach agreement. But it says the breach is minor, and denies trying to renege on the agreement.
Johnson's spokesman, James Slack, said the bill provided "a safety net that removes any ambiguities and ensures that the government can always deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.”
Business Minister Nadim Zahawi said the British government was “absolutely committed” to upholding the agreement, including the parts relating to Northern Ireland.
“It’s not about if we implement the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Irish protocol, it’s how we implement it,” he said.
But the admission that new legislation will break international law has caused alarm across the political spectrum, even in Britain. The bill is likely to face strong opposition when it is debated in Parliament next week. Johnson is due to speak to Conservative lawmakers later Friday in an attempt to forestall a potential rebellion.
The EU has said it will take legal action if the U.K. doesn't change course and drop the controversial law by the end of September.
Britain and the EU have jointly promised in the Brexit divorce agreement to ensure there are no customs posts or other obstacles on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.
An open border underpins the peace agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Any hardening of the border could anger nationalists who want a united Ireland. But any new barriers to trade across the Irish Sea would rile Unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay British.
Britain says its law is intended to ensure there are no barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. in the event that there is no deal with the EU.
Despite the chill in relations between London and Brussels and the threat of legal action, British officials insist talks on a future trade deal aren’t on the verge of collapse — and could continue even if the EU sues the U.K. for violating the withdrawal agreement.
A senior U.K. negotiating official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the confidential meetings, said a round of talks in London this week was “more constructive than you might expect.”
The official said that the two sides were starting to have “discussions of substance on some issues,” though they remain far apart on the key outstanding areas of state subsidies for businesses and EU boats’ access to U.K. fishing waters.
Chief U.K. negotiator David Frost plans to return to Brussels next week for more talks with Barnier.
Both sides say that unless there is an agreement by next month, Britain is facing an economically disruptive no-deal exit on Jan. 1. Barnier said Thursday that “the EU is intensifying its preparedness” for a possible no-deal outcome.
Geir Moulson and Frank Jordans in Berlin contributed to this story.