A senior EU official has urged Boris Johnson’s government to move on from Brexit and work with the bloc in the face of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine.
Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission’s vice-president who is in charge of UK relations, repeated his criticism of the government’s “illegal” plan to rip up parts of the Northern Ireland protocol, two days after the bill cleared its first hurdle in the House of Commons.
He also made his most direct appeal yet to London to turn the page. “It is high time we got Brexit done,” Šefčovič said, turning the prime minister’s 2019 election slogan against him. “In the face of Russia’s brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine, it is clearer than ever before that the EU and the UK are natural allies,” he added. “Where the rules-based order is under pressure, strengthening western unity should be our moral imperative.”
He was speaking at Bloomberg’s headquarters in London, where David Cameron launched his ill-fated attempt to renegotiate the UK’s place in the EU nine and a half years ago.
In that 2013 speech, the then Conservative prime minister said Britain would remain tied to the EU by a complex web of legal commitments. “If we leave the EU, we cannot of course leave Europe,” Cameron said – a line Šefčovič quoted as he appealed for “strong strategic EU-UK relations”.
In a pointed rebuke to the current prime minister’s shifting position on the Brexit withdrawal deal signed with the EU in 2019, Šefčovič said: “I agree with prime minister Johnson’s assessment from 2019 that the protocol is fully compatible with the Good Friday (Belfast) agreement.”
Under the Brexit withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland largely remains in the EU single market to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The Slovakian official said the protocol offered Northern Ireland the best of both worlds, or “having the jam on both sides of the bread”. Under the agreement the region can trade easily with the EU, as well as benefit from any trade deals the UK signs with the rest of the world.
He accused the government of a failure to engage, which he said was “extremely disappointing as a majority of people in Northern Ireland can appreciate the positive benefits and opportunities that the protocol brings”.
An opinion poll for Queen’s University Belfast, published on Wednesday, showed that 55% of people in Northern Ireland think the protocol is a suitable arrangement, although 59% thought it was having a negative impact on political stability in Northern Ireland and on British relations with the Irish republic.
Šefčovič repeated his offer to cut protocol red tape, but said it was “unrealistic and unfair” for London to expect all barriers to be removed when goods travel to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
The government has said businesses should be able to choose between a British or EU regulatory regime, which Šefčovič said would “bury them under a mountain of bureaucracy”.
Privately, commission officials have voiced scepticism that the Northern Ireland protocol bill will ever become law, although Johnson predicted it will be on the statute books by the end of the year.
At least 115 UK-based scientists are to lose prestigious European grants and 19 are leaving Britain as a result of a furious row between London and Brussels over participation in a continent-wide research programme after Brexit.
A provisional deal for the UK to remain part of Horizon Europe has been thrown into doubt by Boris Johnson’s threat to tear up the protocol deal on Northern Ireland which he struck with the EU in 2019.
The EU is refusing to ratify Britain’s associate membership of the 95bn euro scheme, which funds projects from particle physics to vaccine research.
Earlier this month, almost 150 UK-based scientists who had secured promises of funding for cutting-edge research were told that they must declare their intention to transfer to institutions within the EU by Wednesday this week or lose their grants.
And the European Research Council has now revealed that 19 of them have informed it of their intention to leave the UK in order to keep their funding, with another 12 cases yet to be resolved.
Boris Johnson has been warned there is “no legal or political justification” for his plans to override the Brexit agreement on Northern Ireland, in an extraordinary joint denunciation by the Irish and German governments.
With senior figures already warning Johnson that he risks the break-up of the union by ploughing ahead with the plan, the German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and her Irish counterpart Simon Coveney make a rare joint statement condemning the UK for “unilaterally breaking an international agreement”.
Writing in the Observer, the two ministers suggest that Johnson’s determination to effectively override the so-called Northern Ireland protocol, which he agreed two years ago, risks undermining the “rules-based international order” just as the continent is attempting to confront Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine.
The two ministers say that recent elections to Northern Ireland’s assembly, which delivered a majority of members who back the protocol, showed support for the current arrangements. They add that the EU had been and would continue to be “flexible and creative” to deal with issues that have hampered trade between the region and Great Britain.
“Unfortunately, the British government chose not to engage in good faith with these proposals,” they write. “Instead of the path of partnership and dialogue, the British government has chosen unilateralism. There is no legal or political justification for unilaterally breaking an international agreement entered into only two years ago. The tabling of legislation this month will not fix the challenges around the protocol. Instead, it will create a new set of uncertainties and make it more challenging to find durable solutions.
“In these difficult times, as Russia is leading a ruthless war in Ukraine, breaking with our European peace order, the EU and UK must stand together as partners with shared values and a commitment to uphold and strengthen the rules-based international order.
“We urge the British government to step back from their unilateral approach and show the same pragmatism and readiness to compromise that the EU has shown. By working together – in partnership and with mutual respect – common ground can be found and challenges, no matter how difficult, can be overcome.”
The intervention shows a coordinated effort within the EU to back Ireland in the dispute, as well as a hardening of Germany’s position on Brexit with the arrival of the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz. It will intensify concerns that Johnson’s decision to press ahead with the Northern Ireland protocol bill, which many legal experts believe breaches international law, will trigger a trade war with the EU as inflation continues to hit.
While the UK’s proposals passed their latest parliamentary vote last week, more than 70 Tory MPs abstained or were given permission to miss the vote. The proposals were also criticised as breaching international law by former PM Theresa May. Other senior figures not to cast a vote included the former Northern Ireland secretaries Julian Smith and Karen Bradley, and Johnson’s former attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox.
Some MPs are already plotting ways to stop the government from deploying the plans, which effectively override the existing agreement. One plan, drawn up by Sir Bob Neill, the chair of the justice committee, would hand parliament a veto over whether or not the new powers in the bill could be deployed.
Anger has been growing in Dublin since the bill was published. Leo Varadkar, Ireland’s deputy prime minister, last week accused the British government of risking the break-up of the UK with its handling of Northern Ireland. Varadkar, who is due to succeed Micheál Martin as taoiseach later this year, agreed the principles of the protocol in talks with Johnson in 2019.
He said last week that the UK government’s actions were disrespectful. “I think that’s a strategic mistake for people who want to maintain the union, because if you continue to impose things on Northern Ireland that a clear majority of people don’t want, that means more people will turn away from the union,” he told the BBC. “It’s a peculiar policy coming from a government that purports to want to defend the union.”
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, has claimed that proposals put forward by the EU to resolve some of the trade issues created by the protocol would create more unwanted bureaucracy.
MEPs are set to blast Boris Johnson’s approach on Wednesday
The European Parliament's far-right group has tried to stop MEPs from discussing the British government's breaches of international law on Wednesday.
MEPs are due to discuss Boris Johnson's overriding of the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol later in the week – with the prime minister expected to be blasted from across the EU political spectrum.
But the ID group, which represents parties like French National Rally, Italy's Lega, and the German AfD appears to have come to the UK's aid and tried to get the debate postponed.
In a request submitted this week the MEPs said the debate, which is planned to take centre stage in the parliament on Wednesday, should be postponed and relegated to an unspecified "later part session".
They want the discussion replaced with a debate about the bloc's aviation industry.
The parliament's presidency is not expected to accede to the demands and the ID group does not have the numbers to force the agenda change through.
It is not the first time EU far-right parties have cooperated with the UK government in Strasbourg in recent years.
In 2018 Tory MEPs voted to protect Hungary's right right Orban regime from EU sanctions – putting them up at odds with mainstream centre-right opinion in the parliament.
That episode provoked condemnation from Hillary Clinton, who said the Tories had "come a long way from the party of Churchill and Thatcher".
The debate on Wednesday will feature statements from the European Commission and European Council, who are expected to strongly criticise the UK.
Brussels is pushing ahead with legal action against the UK, which appears to be disregarding parts of the treaty it signed up to.
Boris Johnson is pushing domestic legislation through parliament which will give British ministers powers to effectively override the agreement.
But the UK says the changes are necessary because the arrangements it signed up to are disrupting trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
In a speech to the Centre for European Reform, Starmer will set out what he describes as a five point plan to “make Brexit work”. As well as plans to align with EU agriculture rules he will also pledge to follow EU regulations in other areas such as chemicals and product safety standards saying Labour has “no intention from diverging standards below current levels”.
In addition he will promise to agree a deal over the Northern Ireland protocol and push for British UK scientific institutions to be allowed back in the EU Horizon funding scheme.
However, by arguing that “you cannot win back the trust of those who have lost faith in politics if you’re constantly focused on the arguments of the past” he will disappoint those in the party who want him to go further.
“There are some who say, ‘We don’t need to make Brexit work. We need to reverse it,” he will say.
The speech on Monday brought criticism from the SNP and Greens, but pro-EU Labour backbenchers praised Starmer’s approach, saying the only option was to try to make the current deal function better.
The Labour leader set out a series of proposals to “make Brexit work”, notably over Northern Ireland, including a new veterinary agreement for agri-product trade, and a system for low-risk goods to enter Northern Ireland without checks.
Other proposals include a scheme for the mutual recognition of professional qualifications with the EU and a new policing and security arrangement with Brussels.
The plan also offers “flexible labour mobility arrangements” for people making short-term business trips between the UK and EU, and for musicians and artists embarking on tours.
The current deal had “created a hulking fatberg of red tape and bureaucracy, one that is hampering the flow of British business”, Starmer said. “We will break that barrier down, unclog the arteries of our economy and allow trade to flourish once more.”
However, he stressed that that any debate on rejoining the EU would be to “look back over our shoulder” and jeopardise public faith in politics, adding: “So let me be very clear: with Labour, Britain will not go back into the EU. We will not be joining the single market. We will not be joining a customs union.”
Ben Bradshaw, the Exeter MP and former minister who is a leading pro-EU voice in the Labour party, said Starmer’s approach was “absolutely right”.
He said: “There is no prospect of us rejoining the EU, single market or customs union anytime soon, not least because [Boris] Johnson has so completely destroyed trust with our European neighbours that any such move would be on far worse terms than those we had before we left.
“There is, however, plenty that we can do to reduce the enormous damage being done to our economy and our relationship with our allies, by fixing the many problems with Johnson’s botched Brexit deal.”
Hilary Benn, who formerly chaired the Brexit Commons committee and was another strong proponent of a second referendum, told BBC Radio 4’s the World at One that even rejoining the single market would require a public vote.
“And I have tell you, in my view there is absolutely no appetite for that whatsoever,” he said.
Sarah Olney, the Lib Dems’ trade spokesperson, said Johnson’s deal, which Labour voted for, had done significant damage, and there was a need for “a pragmatic approach that works for the UK”.
In contrast, the SNP said Starmer “has strengthened the case for independence by embracing the Tories’ hard Brexit”, while the Greens said it was “quite perverse of Keir Starmer to stick his head in the sand and insist he will make Brexit work”.
What was particularly barmy about this piece of legislation is that the fact that using a lower powered vacuum cleaner means you have to use it for longer to achieve the same result. Hardly an efficient means of reducing energy consumption.