The President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen said a trade pact is still possible but stressed that honouring the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland was “a matter of law and trust and good faith”.
In her annual State of the Union speech to MEPs, she quoted Margaret Thatcher as saying: “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world and bad for any future treaty on trade.” Ms von der Leyen added: “This was true then and this is true today.”
Minutes before her speech, a major concession to Tory MPs rebelling against government threats to break international law was signalled by the Justice Secretary.
Robert Buckland said any attempt to override parts of the withdrawal agreement signed by Mr Johnson in January would only happen in “emergency” and where the Government felt the European Union was “breaching their obligations to us”.
Bob Neill, the architect of a key rebel amendment due to be voted on in the Commons on Tuesday, told the Standard that Mr Buckland’s comments were “a positive intervention” that could take the heat out of the crisis. Some 20 Tory MPs rebelled on Monday in a vote on the Internal Market Bill, which contains powers to override the Northern Ireland section of the withdrawal agreement. The MPs have warned they could defeat the Government on the Neill amendment, which proposes giving Parliament a veto over ministers using the powers.
Mr Buckland told Sky News: “If we reach that stage, the reason for it is because we judge that sadly, despite everybody’s best efforts, the EU is in a position where we think they are actually breaching their obligations to us.
“It is like an international dispute where clearly there is a breach somewhere but it is going to be the subject of a lot of argument. I would like to avoid that, I think we can but we do need to prepare for that contingency, that ‘break glass in case of emergency’ provision, which I believe this is.”
On his promise to resign if there was “unacceptable” law-breaking, Mr Buckland suggested the legal position would be “fudged” in such a dispute, with claims of wrongdoing on both sides.
In a further olive branch to rebels, who include former attorney generals Jeremy Wright and Geoffrey Cox, he said: “I think my colleagues are absolutely right to sound the alarm about a flagrant and egregious breach of the rule of law — something that is beyond any doubt or argument — but I do not believe we are there.” In the Commons last week, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the Government could use the Bill to break the law “in a very specific and limited way”.
Mr Neill, who has had meetings with the Prime Minister, said: “I thought Robert Buckland was very positive. His analysis that a potential conflict happens at the point where we exercise the powers is important and is very close to the analysis I have been advancing.”
Downing Street appeared to be taken by surprise by the strength of feeling among MPs against threatening to break international law, seen by many as a tactic in talks over a trade deal.
Ms von der Leyen told the European Parliament there could be no unilateral rewriting of the withdrawal agreement, which took three years to negotiate. She said: “The EU and the UK jointly agreed that it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland and we will never backtrack on that.
“This agreement has been ratified by this house and the House of Commons. It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded, disapplied. This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”
Asked about reports he had been “wobbly” on the issue, Mr Buckland said: “I’m not really a wobbler. I’m someone who knows my own mind and the Prime Minister knows he will get very clear views from me.”
Senior congressmen have warned Mr Johnson that a free trade pact with the US is at risk if Britain reneges on the withdrawal agreement.