BRUSSELS: European Union (EU) chief Ursula von der Leyen complained on Wednesday that hopes of a post-Brexit trade deal are fading and warned Britain not to unilaterally modify the withdrawal deal.
“With every day that passes, chances for a timely agreement do start to fade,” the president of the European Commission said in her State of the European Union address.
“Negotiations are always difficult, and we are used to that… but talks have not progressed, as we would have wished. And that leaves us very little time.”
Von der Leyen warned the attempt by UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to override parts of the withdrawal treaty he signed last year is illegal and unacceptable.
“This withdrawal agreement took three years to negotiate,” she said. “And we worked relentlessly on it line by line, word by word, and together we succeeded.”
The result “guarantees our citizens rights, financial interests, the integrity of the single market and crucially, the Good Friday Agreement,” she said.
The European Union and Britain “jointly agreed it was the best and only way to ensure peace on the island of Ireland. And we will never backtrack on that,” von der Leyen said.
“And this agreement has been ratified by this house and by the House of Commons,” she told the European Parliament. “It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or misapplied. This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”
Britain left the EU in January but remains bound by the rules of the 27-member bloc until a transition period ends on Dec 31. Eight rounds of talks to strike a deal on future trade relations have not seen a breakthrough.
Von der Leyen’s speech came as EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier briefed ambassadors from the 27 member states in Brussels, giving them the unsurprising news that he thinks the talks are not making progress.
A European source said the meeting backed Barnier’s plan to keep talking to London, staying “firm and determined” in protecting EU interests.
Barnier’s main message was the need to “keep calm and carry on”, the source said, with Brussels determined not to take the bait of what it sees as British provocation, the source said.
The two sides have set a deadline of mid-October to agree a deal — and allow time for it to be ratified by the European Parliament.
But the source said Barnier raised for the first time the possibility of extending this into the third week of October if things calm down and talks proceed.
British lawmakers on Monday gave their backing to the new legislation, known as the UK Internal Market Bill, which gives London the power to unilaterally regulate UK trade and state aid within Northern Ireland – in violation of the Brexit treaty, which demands Brussels have a say.
The British government on Wednesday once again defended the bill, with Johnson saying it was intended to secure the “economic, political, territorial integrity of the United Kingdom”.
Brandon Lewis, the minister for Northern Ireland, told a committee of MPs the bill was an “absolute last resort” and he remained “optimistic” of a deal with the EU.
“All we are doing in this act is simply taking an insurance policy, a safety net, to ensure that Northern Irish businesses… are confident they will have unfettered access to the GB market,” he said.
Lewis last week caused consternation in both Brussels and London when he admitted that the new bill would break international law. But he said his remark was “absolutely in line” with the views of senior lawyers advising the government, after new signs of discord this week. – AFP