Former British leaders have joined those slamming PM Johnson's government for trying to rewrite the Brexit withdrawal treaty.

EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier leaves after a meeting at Westminster Conference Centre in London. September 10, 2020.
EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier leaves after a meeting at Westminster Conference Centre in London. September 10, 2020. (Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP)

European Council President Charles Michel has warned Britain that it must "take its responsibilities" and fully implement the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

"Time for UK Government to take its responsibilities," Michel wrote on Twitter after speaking on the telephone with Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin on Sunday.

Former leaders slam PM Johnson

The British government on Wednesday introduced new legislation to rewrite its Brexit withdrawal treaty – a bill that is causing deep alarm among former prime ministers and Prime Minister Boris Johnson's own MPs.

Two former British prime ministers, who played crucial roles in bringing peace to Northern Ireland, joined forces on Sunday to urge lawmakers to reject government plans to override the Brexit deal with the European Union, arguing that it imperils that peace and damages the UK's reputation.

In an article in The Sunday Times, John Major and Tony Blair slammed the current British government for “shaming” the country with legislation that, in places, goes against the very deal it signed to allow for the UK's smooth departure from the EU earlier this year.

Major, a Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, and Blair, his Labour successor for a decade, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Internal Market Bill “questions the very integrity" of the UK.

“This government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation," they said.

The planned legislation, which will be debated by British lawmakers this week, has led to a furious outcry within the EU as it would diminish the bloc's previously agreed oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland if a UK-EU trade agreement isn’t secured.

READ MORE: Was the UK ever a genuine member of the European Union?

Government admits violation of international law

The British government has admitted that the legislation would break international law, but argues that it's an insurance policy for that potential "no-deal" scenario.

Johnson has said the legislation is needed to end EU threats to impose a “blockade” in the Irish Sea that the prime minister asserted could “carve up our country.”

Britain’s Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told the BBC on Sunday that the legislation was a “break the glass in emergency provision,” if needed, and that he would resign if he believed the rule of law was broken in an “unacceptable” way.

“I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage,” he said.

EU leaders have furiously rejected Johnson's charge that the bloc is planning a major disruption to normal trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told the BBC that the “kind of inflammatory language” coming from the British government was “spin, and not the truth.”

Still, with the British government showing no sign of changing course, there are real concerns that the talks on a future trade deal between the UK and the EU could collapse within weeks. If that happens, tariffs and other impediments to trade will be imposed by both sides at the start of 2021.

The UK left the EU on January 31, but it is in a transition period that effectively sees it benefit from the bloc’s tariff-free trade until the end of the year while a future relationship is negotiated. Even before the latest standoff, discussions between the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his UK counterpart, David Frost, had made very little progress.

One major element of the Brexit withdrawal agreement is the section related to ensuring an open border on the island of Ireland to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The issue proved thorny during the more than two years of discussions that it took to get a Brexit deal done, as the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is the only land link between the UK and the EU.

The EU wanted assurances that the border would not be used as a back route for unlicensed goods arriving in Ireland from the rest of the UK – England, Scotland and Wales. As a result, the two sides agreed there would be some kind of regulatory border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

Major and Blair, who both vociferously opposed Brexit, said the planned legislation puts the 1998 Good Friday agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland at risk.

The pair said the bill "negates the predictability, political stability and legal clarity that are integral to the delicate balance between the north and south of Ireland that is at the core of the peace process.”

It's unclear whether the planned legislation will get through the British Parliament, with a number of Johnson's fellow Conservatives uneasy at the prospect of the government breaching international law.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies