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Why Is The UK Seeking To Unpick The EU Withdrawal Agreement?

The Guardian, UK: ‘Why Is The UK Seeking To Unpick The EU Withdrawal Agreement?’ By Lisa O’Carroll, Brexit correspondent.

Brexit talks have been thrown into jeopardy after revelations that the UK government is to table legislation that will unpick some of the withdrawal agreement Boris Johnson signed with the EU in January. It is one of the most startling turns in the four-year Brexit saga.

Opinion is divided as to whether this is sabre-rattling that will force the EU into a trade deal or whether it will ultimately torpedo the talks.

What is this legislation?

The internal market bill is due to be published on Wednesday and will include elements that are expected to “eliminate the legal force of parts of the withdrawal agreement”.

According to reports, the government is seeking to override the Northern Ireland protocol that requires checks on goods, animals and food crossing the Irish Sea from Great Britain into Ireland and rules on state aid for British firms.

The legislation follows the July publication of a white paper on the internal market, which is designed to ensure trading rules are the same in all four nations of the UK.

The internal market legislation has already proved unpopular with the devolved governments in Wales and Scotland because of proposals for bodies that will ensure trading standards are uniform across the four nations.

One proposal is for a “mutual recognition regime” requiring regulatory standards in one part of the UK to be automatically accepted in others. Jeremy Miles, the Welsh counsel general and minister for European transition, said this would “drive a coach and horses through the capacity of individual governments in different parts of the UK to deliver policy objectives in their economies”.

What is the government saying?

Details are not known yet but government sources have confirmed the Financial Times report describing it as a “sensible fallback” in case the ongoing Brexit trade talks collapse and the UK leaves the single market and the customs union without a deal when the Brexit transition period ends on 31 December.

The environment secretary, George Eustice, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday the government was “committed” to the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland deal always included “loose ends” that needed to be tidied up including “the type of administrative customs processes” that will be implemented on goods crossing the Irish sea.

What is the reaction in Ireland?

The plans have astonished the Irish government. Simon Coveney, the foreign affairs minister, who was central to the negotiations that led to the withdrawal agreement, has said it was a “very unwise” move.

Neale Richmond, an MP from the same party, who also takes a keen interest in Brexit described the reports as “extremely worrying”.

“The withdrawal agreement is an international treaty with obligations to International law. It cannot simply be overridden with domestic legislation. No doubt our negotiator, Michel Barnier, will approach this in a calm and patient manner as ever but one must wonder if the British government seriously intend to proceed along this path in order to sate domestic difficulty then why would anyone sign any treaty with them in the future?”

Can the UK break the withdrawal agreement?

The withdrawal agreement is an international treaty and legally binding. This is why the Irish, with the full backing of the EU, were so keen to get the arrangements for the Irish border nailed down in the withdrawal agreement. They knew the UK could not subsequently wriggle out of the deal without risking its international reputation as a trustworthy nation that stands by its own legal commitments.

Practically, however, the government can do what it likes as it has an 80-strong majority.

And, according to the FT which quotes three sources, the government is tabling the legislation in the full knowledge that it will be breaking international law.

“The bill will explicitly say the government reserves the right to set its own regime, directly setting up UK law in opposition with obligations under the withdrawal agreement, and in full cognisance that this will breach international law,” it said.

Is the timing significant?

The revelations emerged on the eve of the resumption of talks on trade and the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The eighth round of negotiations are to start on Tuesday but expectations of progress are low.

Some think this move is designed to create the theatre and heightened tensions needed to create a deal, allowing the UK to appear victorious to its Brexit base, if it wrangles concessions out of the EU. Others believe it could result in the collapse of talks this week.

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