UK Government ministers have denied they are planning to rip up the Brexit withdrawal agreement (WA) the Prime Minister struck with the EU last year.
The Financial Times reported Boris Johnson’s government intends to table legislation which would override key elements of the treaty if no solution is found in the ongoing trade talks with Brussels.
Following the report, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon branded the Conservatives “charlatans” and warned such a move would “significantly increase the likelihood of no deal”.
High among concerns is the prospect the UK Government could threaten to walk away from the Northern Ireland protocol built into the WA which aims to ensure that there is no return of a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.
Critics piled on the idea of using the Northern Irish border as a bargaining chip in negotiations while undermining an international treaty.
However, the UK’s environment secretary George Eustice said measures in the Internal Market Bill, due to be published on Wednesday, would simply tie up some “loose ends”.
He insisted No 10 remained committed to the principles of the withdrawal treaty, which will see customs checks on some goods moving from mainland Britain to Northern Ireland.
Eustice told BBC radio: “What we are talking about here is what type of administrative customs processes you might have for goods that might be at risk of entering the EU single market – going from GB to Northern Ireland.
“These are important but minor technical details.
“The principle behind the protocol of checks on some of those goods entering through Northern Ireland ports is in the Northern Ireland protocol and we remain committed to it.”
But the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier said he would be seeking clarification about the UK’s plans, saying “everything that has been signed in the past must be respected”.
Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said that abandoning the agreement would be “a very unwise way to proceed”.
Sturgeon tweeted: “If true, this means repudiation by UK Government of a treaty freely negotiated by it and described by PM in (general election) as an ‘oven ready’ deal.
“This will significantly increase likelihood of no deal, and the resulting damage to the economy will be entirely Tory inflicted.
Her constitution and Europe spokesman Michael Russell also weighed in, saying the reported move would “alienate not just (the EU) but also any country that is considering a (free trade agreement with the UK).
The row erupted as the Prime Minister set a five-week deadline for talks with the EU to arrive at a post-Brexit free trade deal.
In a statement ahead of the resumption of talks in London on Tuesday, Johnson said any agreement needed to ready in time of the next EU summit on October 15.
He claimed a no-deal Brexit would still be a “good outcome” for the UK.
The PM continued: “As a government we are preparing, at our borders and at our ports, to be ready for it.
“We will have full control over our laws, our rules, and our fishing waters.
“We will have the freedom to do trade deals with every country in the world and we will prosper mightily as a result.”