The warnings came as the UK government published legislation that it admits breaks international law.

Small toy figures are seen in front of a Brexit logo in this illustration picture, March 30, 2019.
Small toy figures are seen in front of a Brexit logo in this illustration picture, March 30, 2019. (Reuters)

The European Union has warned Britain that even the most minor breach of the Brexit withdrawal treaty would undermine what little trust is left between the two sides in already fragile trade talks.

“Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship,” European Council President Charles Michel said on Wednesday.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the age-old diplomatic cornerstone of “agreements must be kept” was “the foundation of prosperous future relations.”

The warnings came as the UK government published legislation that it admits breaks international law by overriding parts of the legally binding withdrawal agreement that both Britain and the EU signed up to.

The move has stunned and angered the EU. EU Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said that even for a bloc that has international agreements with countless countries and organisations, it would be “an unprecedented situation."

“The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and that we expect that the letter and the spirit of the withdrawal agreement will be fully respected," he said.

Michel stressed that the deal had been “concluded and ratified by both sides. It has to be applied in full.“

Lack of clarity 

The Brexit divorce deal contained ambiguities after being written at pace, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson's spokesman said on Wednesday, adding it was always expected for the details on Northern Ireland to be hammered out after signing.

"The Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, aren't like any other treaty. It was agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances, to deliver on a clear political decision by the British people, with the clear overriding purpose of protecting the special circumstances of Northern Ireland," the spokesman said.

"It contains ambiguities, and in key areas there is a lack of clarity. It was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements to clarify these aspects could be reached between us and the EU."

The Internal Market Bill is designed to ensure there are no barriers to trade within the United Kingdom after the country leaves the European Union’s economic framework at the end of the year and help power recovery from the coronavirus pandemic. The UK government says the legislation is a “safety net” designed to prevent disruption to internal UK trade in the event that the UK and the EU do not reach an agreement by the end of the year.

But under its EU Withdrawal Treaty, Britain is meant to liaise with Brussels on any arrangements for Northern Ireland, which saw three decades of bloodshed until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and will become the UK's only land border with the EU.

The diplomatic standoff coincided with a new round of negotiations in London on a future trade relationship.

READ MORE: After Brexit, EU faces ‘most difficult’ budget negotiations in history 

A ways to go

Though the UK left the bloc on January 31, it is in a transition period that effectively sees it abide by EU rules until the end of this year. The discussions are about agreeing the broad outlines of the trading relationship from the start of 2021.

Both sides are gloomy about a breakthrough on the key differences: competition rules and fishing rights. Johnson has said Britain will walk away if there is no agreement by October 15.

EU officials have said any attempt to override the international treaty could jeopardise peace in Northern Ireland as well as undermine the chances of any trade deal.

The withdrawal agreement that has already been signed and ratified includes measures to ensure there are no barriers to trade or travel between Northern Ireland, which is part of the UK, and EU member Ireland. To do that, Britain has agreed that Northern Ireland will continue to follow some EU rules even after the rest of the UK goes it is own way. That means there will be checks on some goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland, with tariffs applied on any that are headed for the EU.

READ MORE: UK officially leaves EU after 47 years of membership 

Levelling the playing field 

The future trade discussions have made very little progress over the summer, with the two sides seemingly wide apart on several issues, notably on business regulations, the extent to which the UK can support certain industries and over the EU fishing fleet’s access to British waters.

The EU has been particularly insistent on level playing field issues in order to ensure that British-based businesses don’t have an unfair advantage as a result of laxer social, environmental or subsidy rules in the UK.

Britain will follow World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules on subsidies after its exit from European Union rules is completed at the end of the year, business minister Alok Sharma said, promising not to adopt a "picking winners" approach.

"While our guiding philosophy remains that we do not want a return to the 1970s approach of picking winners and bailing out unsustainable companies with taxpayers’ money, the UK must have flexibility as an independent, sovereign nation to intervene to protect jobs and to support new and emerging industries," Sharma said in a statement.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies