LONDON – Negotiators from Britain and the European Union met Monday to seek a breakthrough in gridlocked trade talks, with just days until a deadline to strike a post-Brexit deal.
As EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier met his British counterpart, David Frost, in London, members of Britain's House of Lords were trying to rip up a contentious Brexit bill that threatens to derail negotiations.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has infuriated the EU with a bill that breaches parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement that allowed for Britain’s exit from the bloc in January. The Internal Market Bill gives the U.K. power to override sections of the agreement dealing with Northern Ireland trade.
The U.K. acknowledges that the bill breaches international law, and the legislation has been condemned by the EU, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden and scores of British lawmakers, including many from Johnson’s Conservative Party.
On Monday members of Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, slammed the bill, ahead of a vote that is likely to remove the law-breaking clauses from the legislation.
Michael Howard, a former Conservative Party leader who now sits in the Lords, said he was “dismayed” by the government’s behavior.
“I voted and campaigned for Brexit, and I do not for one moment regret or resile from that vote,” he said. “But I want the independent sovereign state that I voted for to be a country that holds its head up high in the world, that keeps its word, that upholds the rule of law and that honors its treaty obligations.”
Charlie Falconer, who served as justice minister in a previous Labour government, said the bill was making the U.K. an “international pariah.”
“The House of Lords is doing the government a favor by seeking to take out these lawbreaking provisions now,” he told Sky News.
The government says it will restore the contentious measures when the bill returns to the House of Commons in the coming weeks.
It says the bill is needed as “vital safety net” to ensure smooth trade among all parts of the U.K. no matter what happens to U.K.-EU trade after Brexit.
Environment Secretary George Eustice said that fears the bill could lead to border checks between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland — something that could undermine Northern Ireland peace — were unfounded.
“There will be no need for checks on the Northern Ireland border,” he told the BBC.
Biden, who was declared winner of the U.S. presidential election on Saturday, has warned that Northern Ireland’s Good Friday peace agreement can't “become a casualty of Brexit.” He says the U.S. won't sign a trade deal with Britain if the peace process is harmed.
Britain left the EU’s political structures on Jan. 31 but remains in its economic embrace until a transition period ends on Dec. 31. The two sides say any deal must be agreed by mid-November so it can be ratified by the end of the year.
Although Johnson said Sunday that a trade deal is “there to be done,” Frost and Barnier have both warned that serious “divergences” remain.
The bloc accuses Britain of wanting to “have its cake and eat it” — retaining access to the EU’s lucrative markets without agreeing to follow its rules. The EU fears Britain will slash social and environmental standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.
Britain says the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state.
If there is no deal, businesses on both sides of the English Channel will face tariffs and other barriers to trade starting on Jan. 1. That would hurt economies on both sides, with the impact falling most heavily on the U.K., whose economy is already reeling under the coronavirus pandemic.
With the outcome of trade talks still in doubt, U.K. Treasury chief Rishi Sunak sought to reassure Britain’s huge financial sector that European businesses and institutions would continue to have access to British financial markets, even if there is no deal.
Sunak told the House of Commons that the government is working to ensure U.K. financial rules remain aligned with those of the EU, to ensure markets remain open and well regulated.
“Of course, we’re ready to continue the conversation (with the EU) where we haven’t yet been able to take decisions,” Sunak said. “But in the absence of clarity from the EU, we’re acting unilaterally to provide certainty to firms both here and in Europe.”
Danica Kirka in London contributed to this story.
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