BRUSSELS (AP) – The 27 countries of the European Union presented a united and strengthened front in negotiations with the United Kingdom on Friday after London announced its plan to violate part of the Brexit divorce agreement signed by the two parties less than one year.
Anger and bewilderment at Britain’s plan to violate an international treaty through a bill that would reduce EU oversight of trade between Britain and Northern Ireland led to a firm resolve to stand together as time ran out to find a smooth transition to Brexit by December 31.
“Never in recent history – or perhaps in ancient history of dealing with other countries – have we seen such a breach of an agreement,” Irish Minister for Europe Thomas Byrne told the BBC. “It is unacceptable”.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plan further derailed talks for a future trade deal. Although a no-deal Brexit on January 1 would mainly affect Ireland, France, Belgium and the Netherlands, none were willing to give in to British demands, which for the EU mean free access to its market without guaranteeing free competition.
“We will never accept a decision that weakens or endangers the European single market,” said French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire. “We have expressed very clearly that all European countries remain united and strong.”
All statements at a meeting of eurozone ministers in Berlin supported Le Maire’s position.
Ireland, which has the EU’s only land border with the UK, would be hit the hardest by a collapse in trade negotiations. The Minister of Economy, Paschal Donohoe, thanked “the solidarity and support” of his colleagues.
The British government has acknowledged that it would violate the Brexit deal with that bill, which would reduce EU oversight of trade between Britain and Northern Ireland, an issue that generated great tensions during the Brexit negotiations, but which denies the intention to breach the treaty.
Business Minister Nadim Zahawi said the British government was “absolutely committed” to maintaining the agreement, including the parts concerning Northern Ireland.
“It is not a question of whether we apply the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Irish protocol. It’s about how we apply it, ”he said.
The attempt to violate international law caused alarm across the British political spectrum. The bill is likely to face strong opposition in parliamentary debate next week.
The EU has said it will take legal action if Britain does not change course by the end of September.