Britain is heading into a fresh round of Brexit trade talks acknowledging it could break international law but only in “a limited way” after reports it may undercut its divorce treaty with the European Union.
As the pound fell on fears of a no-deal exit, the government’s legal department head quit because he felt a plan to overwrite parts of the Withdrawal Agreement treaty signed in January was wrong.
Britain left the EU on January 31 but talks on new trade terms have made little headway as the clock ticks down to an October deadline and then the end of the status-quo transition arrangement in late December.
As diplomats gauged whether Johnson was blustering or serious about allowing a tumultuous finale to the four-year saga, Britain insisted it would abide by the treaty.
Asked if anything in the proposed legislation potentially breached international legal obligations or arrangements, Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis said: “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
“We are taking the powers to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect required by article 4 in a certain, very tightly defined circumstance,” he told parliament.
He added that the government supported the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement.
Amid warnings from the EU that if it reneged on the divorce deal there would be no trade agreement, former Prime Minister Theresa May told the government that it risked serious damage to its international image.
“The government is now changing the operation of that agreement,” May, who resigned after her Brexit deal was repeatedly rejected, told parliament.
“Given that, how can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” May asked.
The Financial Times said the government’s “very unhappy” legal head Jonathan Jones walked out in protest over the possible plan to undercut the withdrawal agreement in relation to the protocol for British-ruled Northern Ireland.
Earlier the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost said Britain was not afraid of a no-deal exit.
“We have now been talking for six months and can no longer afford to go over well-trodden ground. We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country,” David Frost, Britain’s top Brexit negotiator, said.
“If they can’t do that in the very limited time we have left then we will be trading on terms like those the EU has with Australia, and we are ramping up our preparations for the end of the year.”