Boris Johnson has offered an olive branch to Brussels at a crucial stage in UK-EU trade talks, confirming he will scrap lawbreaking clauses from contentious Brexit legislation if discussions over implementing last year’s divorce deal are successful.
The overture came less than an hour before the British prime minister was due to speak to Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, to take stock of deadlocked trade negotiations.
Earlier on Monday, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, warned he “cannot guarantee” there will be a Brexit trade accord as Brussels set Wednesday as a new deadline to seal an agreement.
In a written statement, the government said the EU and UK had “worked constructively” to resolve issues around Northern Ireland and that “good progress” was being made.
Mr Johnson had insisted on clauses in the UK internal market bill as a “safety net” to ensure the free flow of goods between the mainland UK and Northern Ireland in the event of his government and Brussels not being able to come to an understanding over how to apply last year’s deal and trade negotiations failing.
Ministers admitted that the clauses would allow ministers to break international law, since the legislation would override Britain’s withdrawal treaty with the EU; the issue has dogged trade talks ever since.
The offer to remove or deactivate the offending clauses came after a meeting between Michael Gove, the British Cabinet Office minister, and Maroš Šefčovič, European Commission vice-president, in Brussels.
They sit on a joint committee overseeing the Northern Ireland protocol, a provision that leaves the region under the EU’s customs code after the end of the Brexit transition period on December 31 and thus subject to special trading arrangements.
The UK government confirmed that if the joint committee concluded its work as planned then ministers would neutralise the “notwithstanding” clause that allows ministers to override international law.
It would remove a clause on export declarations while it would also “deactivate” clauses relating to state aid, so that they could only be used “when consistent with the UK’s rights and obligations under international law”.
Similar clauses in the taxation bill, due to be voted on by MPs on Wednesday, would also be “kept under review”. They relate to which goods travelling from Great Britain to Northern Ireland are “at risk” and should be subject to tariffs.
But one EU diplomat said that the statement amounted to the UK “trying to use rogue behaviour as leverage”. They summarised the move as: “If you do what we want, we might respect the law. If you don’t do what we want, we continue to go rogue.”
David Henig, director of the UK Trade Policy Project, tweeted: “As trust building measures go, the offer not to break treaty if you get what you want is about as limited as you can get. An olive leaf at best, definitely not the branch.”
In closed-door meetings on Monday morning with MEPs and EU ambassadors, Mr Barnier said that about 10 hours of talks with his UK counterpart David Frost and his team on Sunday had failed to yield breakthroughs on the main outstanding issues of fishing rights in UK waters and fair competition rules for business.
He dismissed claims that a deal on fisheries was at hand, despite negotiators working until midnight, and insisted that talks remained difficult. He told MEPs that the talks were in their final days, with Wednesday in effect the deadline, according to one participant at the meeting.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said the prime minister remained “keen” to secure a trade deal and did not accept that Wednesday was a deadline for the talks.
“We are prepared to negotiate for as long as we have time available if we think an agreement is still possible,” the spokesman said. He ruled out any prospect of the talks dragging into 2021.
Sterling lost more than 1 per cent against both the euro and dollar on Monday, on track for its worst one-day performance since September, amid news that the talks remained on a “knife-edge”.
On the question of fisheries, the UK is resisting EU demands for countries such as France and Belgium to retain their historic fishing rights in the area six to 12 nautical miles off the British coast. The two sides are also still negotiating over the length of a multiyear transition period during which access for EU fishing boats to UK waters would be safeguarded.
EU diplomats said that a new complication had arisen because of British demands relating to the ownership of UK-registered fishing vessels.