LONDON: Ireland on Sunday rejected an incendiary claim by Prime Minister Boris Johnson that the EU is plotting to destabilise the UK, as another week of Brexit high drama beckoned ahead of a stormy parliamentary debate in London.
A war of words escalated about a new British government bill that London admits is in violation of its EU divorce treaty — legislation that has sparked a furious response from former prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major, as well as sitting MPs.
Johnson’s contention that the European Union is plotting to choke off food supplies with destabilising new trade barriers between Britain and Northern Ireland is “simply not the case”, Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee told Sky News.
“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 “spin”.
McEntee said that a 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.
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 had accused the EU of threatening to tear the UK apart by imposing a food “blockade” between Britain and Northern Ireland, which is meant to enjoy a special status with the EU after Brexit.
Johnson said the EU’s stance justified his government’s introduction of the new legislation 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 European affairs minister Clement Beaune said it was “inconceivable” that a “great democracy” like the UK would break its word.
Charles Michel, who heads the EU Council of governments, 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.
“Time for UK Government to take its responsibilities,” he tweeted after speaking to Irish prime minister Micheal Martin, while EU negotiator Michel Barnier said the protocol on Northern Ireland “is not a threat to the integrity of the UK”.
The bill will come up for its first debate in the House of Commons on Monday, and mutinous MPs are demanding its withdrawal 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 illegal migrants.
Johnson is fighting on the Brexit front while also resisting mounting disquiet among his own MPs over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Monday also sees the government impose new restrictions on social gatherings.
The main opposition Labour 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.
“Get on with Brexit and defeat the virus. That should be the government’s mantra,” Labour leader Keir Starmer wrote in the Sunday Telegraph.
Major and Blair, who led Britain through historic peace talks for Northern Ireland 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.
The EU has threatened Britain with legal action unless it withdraws its unilateral changes by the end of September, and leaders in the European Parliament on Friday threatened to veto any trade pact if London violated its promises.