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In an furious outburst, top eurocrats signalled they were ready to quit the negotiations unless Boris Johnson univocally agreed to implement a series of checks on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said honouring the Withdrawal Agreement signed last year is a “prerequisite” for a free-trade agreement. And Michel Barnier, her chief negotiator, was said to be ready to storm out of this week’s crunch round of talks unless he is given sufficient promises by No10 over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol.
With tensions on a knife-edge, astonished European sources blasted the Prime Minister for pursuing a “North Korea-style” deal with the bloc.
In a warning to Britain, Mrs von der Leyen said: “I trust the British Government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and a prerequisite for any future partnership.”
Mr Barnier is in London this week for make-or-break talks with Lord Frost as wrangling over a trade deal enters its final stages.
Ahead of the talks, the Frenchman said: “This protocol is a condition for preserving peace and for protecting the integrity of the single market. It’s also a pre-condition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected.”
The uproar came after it emerged Mr Johnson was planning to overwrite large chunks of the divorce deal he signed with Brussels last October in order to water down the number of checks between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Mr Barnier’s spokesman suggested the Brussels diplomat will walk away from talks if the UK doesn’t live up to its commitments.
“While we are determined to reach an agreement with the UK, the EU will be ready in the event of a no-deal scenario to trade with the UK on World Trade Organisation terms as of January 1,” the spokesman said.
“The full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, and in particular the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland are essentially and are legal obligations under international law.
“This is a matter of trust. This is a prerequisite, a precondition for the negotiations on the future partnership.”
Perplexed European diplomats claimed they would support Mr Barnier’s walkout amid a move from Britain to row back on the divorce deal and claimed it would deal a significant blow to the country’s standing on the global stage.
One diplomat told the Daily Express: “If they undermine the Withdrawal Agreement while we are still negotiating our future partnership it would be blatantly clear a contract signed by the UK Government is not worth the paper it is written on.
“Undermining an international treaty would reverberate beyond the negotiations for years to come. It would do undue damage to the UK and cripple them as a contracting partner.
“If the UK is going full North Korea mode, into isolation, then this fits the pattern. But I cannot see global Britain pursuing this route, which is incomprehensible given the kind of country it is and aspires to be – let’s wait and see.”
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Another EU diplomat branded the move “desperate and ultimately a self-defeating strategy.”
In a bid to defuse the row, Mr Johnson’s spokesman said the strategy was simply “tidying up loose ends”.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “We will continue to work with the EU in the Joint Committee to resolve outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“However, as a responsible Government, we cannot allow the peace process or the UK’s internal market to inadvertently be compromised by unintended consequences of the protocol.”
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He added: “So we are taking limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol in domestic law to remove any ambiguity and to ensure the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.
“These limited clarifications deliver on the commitments the Government made in the General Election manifesto.
“We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK and that in the implementation of our Brexit deal, we maintain and strengthen the integrity and smooth operation of our internal market.”
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