LONDON – Instead of closing in on a future trade deal, the European Union and Britain entered a bitter fight Thursday over a planned British law that the EU says would constitute a serious violation of the Brexit divorce agreement and destroy what little trust remains between the two sides.
The 27-nation bloc said Britain must withdraw the planned law dealing with Northern Ireland trade by the end of the month or face legal action even before the transition period following Britain's EU departure ends on Dec. 31.
“By putting forward this bill, the U.K. has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the U.K. government to reestablish that trust,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said after talks with Britain's chief Brexit minister, Michael Gove, at a hastily arranged meeting in London.
Simultaneous talks on a future trade deal also remained in a rut, with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier accusing Britain of wanting to keep the advantages of membership it freely relinquished on Jan. 31 when it officially left the bloc.
“The U.K. is refusing to include indispensable guarantees of fair competition in our future agreement, while requesting free access to our market," Barnier said.
Less than a year ago the two sides signed and ratified a withdrawal agreement that Britain now acknowledges it will violate with its Internal Market Bill, which would diminish the EU's oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. That's a sensitive issue because Northern Ireland has the U.K's only land border with the EU.
Sefcovic said the bill, if adopted, “would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law.”
He said that if Britain didn't change course by the end of September, the EU would take legal action.