The Republic of Ireland has rejected an incendiary claim by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the European Union (EU) is plotting to destabilise the United Kingdom, as another week of Brexit high drama beckoned ahead of a stormy parliamentary debate in London.
A war of words escalated on Sunday about a bill proposed by the government that London admits would be in violation of its EU divorce treaty and has invited a furious response from former prime ministers, Tony Blair and John Major, as well as some sitting MPs.
Johnson’s contention that the EU is plotting a food “blockade” between Britain and Northern Ireland – which is part of the UK and is meant to enjoy special status with the EU after Brexit – is “simply not the case”, Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee told Sky News.
McEntee said the protocol on Northern Ireland in the EU withdrawal treaty was agreed by both sides to ensure fair competition after Brexit, and to comply with a 1998 peace pact that ended three decades of unrest in the province.
“Any suggestion that this is going to create a new border is simply not true,” she said, while Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney dismissed Johnson’s claim as a “spin”.
The treaty also “ensures the integrity of Northern Ireland as part of the UK,” she said and it “ensures we do not see any kind of a border re-emerging”.
Writing in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, Johnson accused the EU of trying to destabilise the UK, and said the EU’s stance justified his government’s introduction of the proposed legislation – which will come up for its first debate in the House of Commons on Monday – to regulate the UK’s internal market after a post-Brexit transition period expires at the end of this year.
But writing in Le Parisien newspaper, French Minister of State for European Affairs Clement Beaune said it was “inconceivable” that a “great democracy” like the UK would break its word.
Charles Michel, who heads the European Council, said Britain’s “international credibility” was at stake as both sides battle to unwind nearly 50 years of economic integration.
He insisted Johnson’s government live up to its binding promises, posting on Twitter that it was “Time for UK Government to take its responsibilities”, after speaking to Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the protocol on Northern Ireland “is not a threat to the integrity of the UK”.
Mutinous MPs are demanding the withdrawal of the bill, along with pressing for Justice Secretary Robert Buckland to resign.
“If I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable, then of course I will go,” Buckland told BBC television.
“I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage,” he added, reiterating Johnson’s view that the new bill is an “insurance policy” in the event of a Brexit no-deal this year, as difficult EU trade talks resume this week in Brussels.
Adding fuel to the fire, the Sunday Telegraph reported that British ministers were considering opt-outs from major portions of European human rights law after Brexit, in part to give them greater freedom of action against undocumented immigrants.
‘Embarrassing our nation’
Johnson is fighting on the Brexit front while also resisting mounting disquiet among his own MPs over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Monday will also see the government impose new restrictions on social gatherings.
“Get on with Brexit and defeat the virus. That should be the government’s mantra,” Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
The main opposition party demanded the prime minister “get his priorities right”, four years after he led the hugely divisive campaign to quit the EU in a hard-fought referendum.
Major and Blair, who led Britain through the historic Northern Ireland peace talks in the 1990s, urged MPs to reject the legislation, saying it imperilled the peace process, EU trade talks and Britain’s integrity with the rest of the world.
“As the world looks on aghast at the UK – the word of which was once accepted as inviolable – this government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation,” they wrote in a joint opinion piece for the Sunday Times.
“How can it be compatible with the codes of conduct that bind ministers, law officers and civil servants deliberately to break treaty obligations?” they asked.
The EU has threatened Britain with legal action unless it withdraws its unilateral changes by the end of September. Leaders in the European Parliament on Friday threatened to veto any trade pact if London violated its promises.