Whitehall legal boss quits over threats to row back on Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

Whitehall legal boss quits over threats to row back on Brexit Withdrawal Agreement

September 8, 2020

WHITEHALL legal boss Jonathan Jones has quit over the PM's threats to row back on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with new legislation.

Civil servants and MPs have revolted over Boris Johnson's new plans to overrule parts of the original Northern Ireland Protocol which prevents a hard border.

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Planned legislation designed to ensure "seamless" trade within the UK post-Brexit has caused uproar over reports it would override parts of the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis even admitted this afternoon that the new bill would break international law.

He told the Commons: "Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way we are taking the power to disapply the EU concept of direct effect… in a certain, very tightly defined circumstance."

No10 insisted they are just trying to avoid legal chaos in a No Deal scenario rather than backslide on previous promises.

An angry official hit back: “The government is completely committed, as it always has been, to implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in good faith.”

Sir Jonathan has quit over the plans, making him the sixth senior Whitehall official to leave this year.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Lisa Nandy said Sir Jonathan had behaved with "honour and principle" by quitting.

Ex-PM Theresa May tore into suggestions Mr Johnson could row back parts of the protocol, saying it was tantamount to ripping up treaties.

She said: "How can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK could be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?"

Tory MP and Chair of the Northern Ireland Select Committee Simon Hoare backed up Mrs May's fury over the suggestions.

Mr Hoare said Sir Jonathan's resignation must give the Government "pause for thought re the issue of the NI Protocol".

Conservative MP and Chair of the Justice Committee Sir Bob Neill slammed Mr Lewis' admission, saying "adherence to the rule of law is negotiable".

It comes Boris Johnson threatened to walk away from talks if there was no agreement by October 15, in time for the European Council.

The new bill is expected to dilute clauses in the Protocol which tie Northern Ireland to EU rules on goods, tariffs, checks on good leaving for the rest of the UK, and state aid rules.

But despite his admission Mr Lewis claimed that reneging on the Withdrawal Agreement would not amount to a breach of international obligations because it was made on the basis further deals would be hashed out, and was different to "any other treaty".

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs this morning the legislation was only delivering on campaign promises to give people in Northern Ireland "unfettered access" to the UK.

He said: "We will implement the provision in the Protocol that Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK customs territory.

"By ensuring that goods moving within the UK will never even inadvertently have to pay EU tariffs.

"We would ensure that businesses in Northern Ireland will have true unfettered access to the market in the UK without paperwork."

He said: "We will ensure that although Northern Ireland will remain subject to the EU state aid regime for the duration of the Protocol, Great Britain will not be subject to EU rules in this area."

He added that the legislation was creating a "safety net" for Northern Ireland.

And Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab rejected the idea that threats to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol amounted to a breach of international law.

He said: "As we go through the uncertainty of changing our relationship with the EU make sure that as regards to the internal market in the UK theres maximum certainty for businesses.

"Of course we will legislate to that effect. Ultimately, we will take every measure necessary to protect the integrity of UK and comply and live up to ensure the Good Friday agreement is respected."

Top EU negotiator Michel Barnier said talks would end if the Withdrawal Agreement – and particularly the Northern Ireland Protocol, which avoids a hard border – were not honoured.

But London insisted they were merely seeing off back-door control from Brussels through "clarifications" to the protocol.

It comes as talks between the EU and the UK kicked off for another round today, with Britain's chief negotiator David Frost urging the block to show "realism" in discussions.

Lord Frost urged EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier to ease up on hardline stances to "make progress" by the PM's October 15 deadline.

He said today: "I will sit down with Michel Barnier and drive home our clear message that we must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time. 

“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."

'HANGING IN THE BALANCE'

Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick said this morning a trade agreement is "hanging in the balance" and dependent on Michel Barnier giving up ground.

He told TalkRadio: "I think (a deal) is hanging in the balance and that very much depends on the actions taken by Michel Barnier and the EU.

"We hope we can still secure the kind of arrangements the EU have with Canada, we think that deal is still within reach if the EU are flexible and realistic this week and in the weeks to come before the crucial deadline of October 15."

Mr Johnson was not concerned about the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, saying Britain would "prosper mightily".

Relations between the UK and EU hit an all time low yesterday, after it was revealed by the Financial Times planned legislation due to be published tomorrow would override parts of the original Withdrawal Agreement.

Q&A

BOTH Boris Johnson and Brussels say trade talks are stuck on major issues — state aid, fish and Northern Ireland — but both agree a deal has to be done by next month. So what are the sticking points really about?

Q: Why October?

A: Brussels says a deal is needed by October 31 at the latest if the EU Parliament is to have enough time to scrutinise and vote on it. The PM agrees — setting an even earlier October 15 deadline. Both sides agree firms need to be given enough time to prepare.

Q: What is state aid?

A: State aid is financial assistance given to individual businesses or certain sectors of the economy by the Government. Brussels does not want the UK to give domestic companies an unfair advantage after Brexit. But Mr Johnson says it’s our right to do what we want as an independent nation.

Q: Why the row over fish?

A: UK trawlermen say they have suffered for years under the bloc’s Common Fisheries Policy. No10 wants to change how quotas are divvied up, doubling the spoils for our fishermen. But EU bosses say the result will wipe out a third of the EU’s fleet.

Q: What is the NI Protocol?

A: It’s a legal fix bolted on to last year’s Brexit deal to make sure there’s no return to a hard border in Ireland. Both sides agreed Northern Ireland will, in effect, stay in the EU’s single market. But a row has broken out over what would happen in a No Deal scenario.

Q: What does the UK want?

A: The UK wants to exempt some goods heading from GB to NI, such as supermarket products and live animals, from some checks and automatic tariffs. It is also seeking a workaround on EU rules which will mean all companies sending items from NI to GB will have to fill out exit declarations.

Q: What does the EU want?

A: In a recent speech Michel Barnier vowed to make sure the EU’s customs code is “applied in its entirety” for all goods entering and leaving NI.

Q: How does this affect talks?

A: EU boss Ursula von der Leyen says there will be no trade deal unless the Protocol is honoured in full.

Q: What happens next?

A: The two sides will meet in London today. If the UK and EU cannot reach an agreement by the end of the year, full tariffs and quotas will be applied to all goods traded between the UK and the EU.

EU boss Ursula von der Leyen warned Boris that implementing the Northern Ireland Protocol in full was a "prerequisite" for any future trade deal with the bloc.

Lord Frost said he will hammer home the PM's message that the UK needs a Canada-style deal which removes trade barriers but cuts the nation free from the bloc's tightly controlled rules and regulations.

The Brexit chief said: "We have listened carefully to our EU counterparts, signalled flexibility where possible to move the talks forward and tables new proposals to make progress.

"But we have repeatedly made clear that key elements of our position derive from the fundamentals of being a sovereign state, and it's time for the EU to fully recognise this reality."

Lord Frost added the UK is already scaling up preparations for a situation where it is trading "on terms like those the EU has with Australia".

The Australia-style trading relationship amounts to trading on WTO rules, but allows both sides to cherry-pick areas they can find agreement on.

Two of the big sticking points prevent the talks from making progress are state aid – the extent to which the government can subsidise private companies – and fishing rights in British waters, where EU states want to continue the "status quo".

Mr Raab argued given the context of Covid, the UK could not be hampered by EU rules on state aid.

And ministers have repeatedly insisted Britain must regain control over its waters by overhauling the current quota system and give British trawlers double the number of catches.

Chair of the ERG Steering Group of hardline Brexiteers Sir Bernard Jenkin has called on the PM to tear up the Withdrawal Agreement if a trade deal can't be done.

The ERG Group has raged against Withdrawal Agreement Mr Johnson secured last year, saying it does not go far enough to making Britain independent.

The Northern Ireland Protocol has been a particular flash-point of the fight, with Brexiteers claiming it keeps the nation at the mercy of the EU if rules on customs, goods, tariffs and state aid must be followed in Northern Ireland.

Sir Jenkin said: "If we don’t reach a deal with the EU, Brexit is not done until the UK government succeeds in its determination to assert its own interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement. 

"If the EU insists on an unreasonable reading of the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK must stand ready to repudiate it."

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