After emergency talks in London, the EU warned that a new UK bill on trade would be "an extremely serious violation" of the Brexit deal. Still, the UK government seems set to push the bill through Parliament.
London's bid to adopt the proposed Internal Market Bill, potentially giving itself power to change the Brexit divorce deal has "seriously damaged trust between the UK and the EU," the EU side said on Thursday, adding it was up to the UK to rebuild this trust.
The comments follow emergency talks in London amid rising tensions. Among other issues, Brussels claims the new bill would undermine the so-called Good Friday agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
"The EU does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft bill is to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite," the European Commission said in an unusually blunt statement.
"Vice-President Maros Sefcovic called on the UK government to withdraw these measures from the draft bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month," the officials added.
London, however, "could not and would not" withdraw the disputed Internal Market Bill, the UK minister in charge of Brexit preparations, Michael Gove, said on Thursday. Gove said the UK was "committed" to implementing the deal but rejected the request delivered by EU Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic to withdraw the proposed legislation.
The EU statement also noted that the withdrawal agreement entered into force in February and "has legal effects under international law. Since that point in time, neither the EU nor the UK can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret, disregard or disapply the agreement."
Sefcovic stressed that the deal was "not open for renegotiation" and that the EU "will not be shy in using" legal remedies prescribed in the divorce deal to address any violations.
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the EU has shown flexibility and respect to UK's sovereignty. However, the UK "has not engaged in a reciprocal way on fundamental EU principals and interests."
"Nobody should underestimate the practical, economic and social consequences of a 'no deal' scenario," Barnier said in a statement.
The British opposition Labour party also slammed the UK government's decision.
"The unvarnished truth is that the UK is breaking international law and trashing the UK's reputation in the world in the process," said the party's top legal spokesman Charlie Falconer.
At the same time, the UK government published a legal opinion claiming that British Parliament "can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK's Treaty obligations."
The assembly is "sovereign as a matter of domestic law" the UK government said, noting that Parliament "would not be acting unconstitutionally in enacting such legislation."
A spokesman for Johnson said the UK remained committed to seeking a deal with the EU. At the same time, London sought to create what it called a "safety net" for Northern Ireland post-Brexit.
"We can't allow the peace process or the UK internal market to inadvertently be comprised by the ill-intended consequences of the protocol," the spokesman told reporters. "We would expect other countries to recognize this and the exceptional circumstances we find ourselves in."
British Brexit reparation minister Michael Gove described the disputed UK bill as a "primarily an economic measure."
Addressing a parliamentary committee on Thursday, Gove said "for the last 40 years many of the rules that have governed the circulation of goods within the UK have been EU single market rules."
The disputed Internal Market bill would provide a "robust legal framework" for the UK internal trade after leaving the EU, according to the minister.
The European Commission has already circulated a paper on legal options against London, including a recourse to the European Court of Justice. Independence from the EU court was a major goal of the pro-Brexit campaign during the 2016 referendum.
"A breach of the obligations under the withdrawal agreement would open the way to legal remedies," according to a draft document reportedly prepared by EU ambassadors and cited by the AFP news agency.
Two other EU officials also involved in the talks said the bloc's executive European Commission would analyze the UK's draft bill once it is passed to take into account any amendments before deciding whether to take legal action.
"First there is the Joint Committee. If it's short on the necessary clarifications, the dispute settling mechanism under the withdrawal agreement is there," an EU diplomat told the Reuters news agency.
While the UK officially left the EU on February 1, not much has changed on the ground as both sides are able to continue trading under the transitional deal. This temporary accord is set to expire at the end of the year, and Johnson's government chose not to request an extension.
Read more: The Irish border — what you need to know
In the withdrawal agreement, the UK agreed to have Northern Ireland enjoy a special status and follow some EU rules in order to ensure smooth travel and trade between the part of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, a member of the EU. London is meant to consult with the EU on Northern Ireland arrangements. However, the new British bill would remove the EU's power to impose checks and tariffs in the case of a no-deal Brexit and grant unilateral powers to the UK government.
A hard border would violate the peace agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.
Several British politicians and lawyers have spoken out against the plan, saying that breaking an international commitment would tarnish Britain's reputation. "If we can't be trusted to abide by our word on this matter, well then why would anyone trust us in the future?" said Edward Garnier, a former British solicitor-general.
British former-Prime Minister John Major slammed Johnson for breaking an international commitment.
"If we lose our reputation for honoring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained," said Major.
Irish Prime Minister Michael Martin said he was "not optimistic at this stage" about a trade deal being reached in comments carried by the RTE national broadcaster.
Chief negotiators for both sides, David Frost and Michel Barnier, are expected to end their latest round of negotiations this week. Both have said that unless there is a suitable agreement by October, the UK will face an economically disruptive no-deal exit on January 1.
In a signal of frustration from Germany, Brexit expert and German lawmaker for Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party, Detlef Seif suggested ending the talks with London altogether.
"It makes no sense to negotiate with a partner about concluding a new accord, if they are not sticking to accord that have already been concluded," Seif said.
While the next round of talks had been scheduled for the end of the month, negotiators could meet as early as next week to gain more time, according to a London government spokesman.
Any accord would need to be reached before the end of October in order for EU nations to ratify it before the transitional deal expires.
dj, lc/sms (AP, Reuters)