In new Brexit turmoil, UK may break law in 'limited way'
By Michael Holden and Andy Bruce
Britain headed into a fresh round of Brexit trade talks on Tuesday 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 sharply on fears of a ‘no deal’ exit, the UK Government's legal department head quit in disagreement with a plan to overwrite parts of the Withdrawal Agreement treaty signed in January.
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.
Britain, and with it Gibraltar, left the European Union 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 Prime Minister Boris 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 and there was "clear precedence" for what Britain was planning.
‘TRUST AT STAKE’
Amid warnings from the EU that if it reneged on the divorce deal there would be no agreement governing the roughly $1 trillion annual trade, former Prime Minister Theresa May said the government risked serious damage to its international image.
"The government is now changing the operation of that agreement," Mrs May, who resigned after her own 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?" Mrs May asked.
The prospect of a messy divorce between the EU's $16 trillion and United Kingdom's $3 trillion economies pushed sterling to two-week lows with traders betting there was more volatility to come.
"We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country," said David Frost, Britain's top Brexit negotiator, adding that Britain was ramping up ‘no deal’ preparations.
The latest round of negotiations in London are likely to be tough: Britain says the EU has failed to understand it is now independent - especially when it comes to fishing and state aid.
The EU, weary of wrangling, says it needs specifics from London and that Britain cannot make its own rules and have preferential access to its markets.
"A disorderly Brexit would not be good for Europe, it would be a real disaster for Britain and its citizens," German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told Reuters.
British officials say they can make do with an Australia-style arrangement. Australia is negotiating a free trade deal with the EU to improve its market access, but for now largely trades with the bloc on World Trade Organization terms.
Get EU trade deal secured and return focus to pandemic, Starmer tells ministers
By Sam Blewett, PA Political Correspondent
Sir Keir Starmer has urged Boris Johnson not to “reopen old wounds” and to get a trade deal with the EU as he criticised the UK Government’s admission it could break international law over Brexit as “wrong.”
The Labour leader called on the Prime Minister on Tuesday to return his attention to the coronavirus pandemic by ensuring negotiations with Brussels are successful.
Sir Keir’s message came on a day Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted the Government’s plan to override elements of Mr Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement with Brussels would breach international law.
The head of the Government Legal Department, Sir Jonathan Jones, resigned amid reports he was “very unhappy” with the proposal.
During a series of broadcast interviews, Sir Keir told Channel 5 News: “What I would say to the Government is don’t reopen old wounds, get a deal, move on and concentrate on defeating this virus.”
He criticised the plan to introduce new legislation overriding elements of the Withdrawal Agreement and suggested Mr Johnson could be using the proposal as a distraction.
He told Sky News: “What the Government is proposing is wrong, I think that’s plain for everybody to see. But we need to step back here and focus on getting a deal.”
“There’s certainly a case to be made that this is all just being used as leverage in the negotiations and that’s wrong in principle.”
“Getting a deal is in the national interest, that’s what the public want, that’s what they were promised. The outstanding issues are not difficult, they can be resolved.”
“A deal can be struck in the next few weeks, the issues outstanding are not unsurmountable. To have no deal would be a failure of negotiation, a failure that has to be owned by the Prime Minister.”
He said he was not working with Conservative MPs riled by the proposal in order to table an amendment and block the move in a parliamentary manoeuvre.
He told Sky News: “I’ve not been talking cross-party on this issue because I’m very focused on the national interest which is getting a deal.”
Sir Keir said he knew Sir Jonathan during his career as a lawyer, vouched for him as a professional and said he would not have resigned “lightly.”
The Labour leader told Sky: “Jonathan is a first-class lawyer who has given excellent advice over the years and I’m absolutely sure he wouldn’t have done this lightly.”
“I haven’t spoken to him but I have known him for many years.”