EU postpones setting date for ratifying Brexit trade deal

Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Rory Carroll
·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

The European parliament has postponed setting a date for ratifying the trade and security deal with Britain after Boris Johnson was accused of breaking international law for a second time over Northern Ireland.

The chamber’s political groups agreed on Thursday to wait in light of the latest row with Downing Street, with some senior MEPs warning that the Christmas Eve deal will not be passed at all if the UK goes ahead with its plans.

The UK was accused by the European commission of breaking international law for a second time on Wednesday after ministers said they would unilaterally extend a grace period on a range of checks on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The commission responded that under the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the decision should have been agreed with the EU.

Related: Brexit: loyalist paramilitary groups renounce Good Friday agreement

During discussions with commission officials on Monday night, the claim that international law had been broken was denied by David Frost, who has recently been given a seat in cabinet and responsibility for EU relations. The UK decision has nevertheless infuriated the Irish government and officials in Brussels.

Sources in the European parliament said that as a result a decision on when the trade and security deal would be ratified had been delayed. It had been expected that a vote would be held on 25 March but after a meeting on Thursday it has been left off the parliamentary agenda for now.

The vote could potentially be delayed until late April to allow MEPs to follow how the row over the Northern Ireland border develops.

The trade and security deal with the UK is provisionally in force but it is yet to be formally ratified by the parliament. Its provisions would fall away if MEPs failed to give it their backing, leaving the UK with a no-deal outcome, including tariffs on goods.

The MEP Bernd Lange, the chair of the parliament’s trade committee, tweeted an excerpt of a previous parliamentary resolution in a sign of the anger at the UK’s move.

“Still valid: ‘Should the UK authorities breach – or threaten to breach – the withdrawal agreement, through the United Kingdom internal market bill ... or in any other way, the European parliament will, under no circumstances, ratify any agreement between the EU and the UK,’” he wrote.

Meanwhile, the EU commissioner, set to take key decisions within weeks on access for the City of London to the European market, said Johnson’s unilateral move to ease the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland had damaged Brussels’ trust in the government.

The European commission is examining whether to make positive “equivalence” decisions that would allow the UK financial services sector to operate in the UK market. Brussels has so far granted only limited direct access for the City of London under its system, which is designed to ensure that only firms operating under regulatory systems similar to its own can offer services in the EU.

Mairead McGuinness, a former Irish MEP who is now the EU commissioner for financial services, claimed it was a damaging episode. “Things like that don’t help build trust,” she said.

McGuinness further noted that Britain’s chancellor, Rishi Sunak, had told the Bank of England on Wednesday to be creative in keeping the City of London competitive after Brexit.

“This is a sensitive area … we need to be clear and have been consistency clear how we will approach this, and we have been very clear with the United Kingdom as well,” she said. “Equally the UK has said, indeed just yesterday, about their intentions, and what those intentions transfer into in terms of real action that may impact on the financial system, we’re not clear yet.

“To repeat the point, equivalence is not about recreating single market access; the UK lost that because of the form of Brexit they chose. Therefore, we will be looking at each particular element where we see an advantage or indeed for us to take action and I dare say the UK will continue in that same vein.”

McGuinness said there remained gaps in information provided by Britain on its intentions to diverge from EU rules.

Lord Frost, whose leadership of the UK’s negotiating team during the recent trade and security talks was marked by a robust style, was also personally criticised on Thursday by the Irish government for making a “very, very dangerous” unilateral decision.

Ireland’s minister for European affairs, Thomas Byrne, said the peace process in Northern Ireland should not be a victim of the UK’s newly antagonistic approach to the EU. He said he feared the consequences for continued peace in Northern Ireland if border issues there became embroiled in the difficult relationship between Brussels and London.

This week, loyalist paramilitary groups told the British and Irish governments they were withdrawing support for the Good Friday agreement in protest at Northern Ireland’s Irish Sea trade border with the rest of the UK.

“Unilateral actions in the context of Northern Ireland are extremely risky to say the least, possibly illegal and certainly foolhardy,” Byrne said. “Michel Barnier made the point to other member states of the European Union that the peace process was fragile in Northern Ireland. And quite frankly, I would have appreciated some public recognition of that by David Frost.”

“I mean, if Britain wants to have an ongoing battle with the European Union, that’s fine – please, please leave Northern Ireland out of it … there is a peace process there to protect,” Byrne added.

Frost recently won out in a Whitehall power tussle to take over from Michael Gove both as the co-chair of a joint committee implementing the withdrawal agreement and a partnership council relating to the trade and security deal.

Simon Coveney, Ireland’s minister for foreign affairs, said the EU was considering legal action through the European court of justice.

“The EU are negotiating with a partner they simply can’t trust,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland programme on Thursday. “That is why the EU is now looking at legal options and legal action, which means a much more formalised and rigid negotiation process as opposed to a process of partnership where you try to solve the problems together.”