Tuesday 8 December 2020 1:59 pm

Britain ditches controversial Internal Market Bill clause in Brexit divorce deal

The government will ditch parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that would have seen the UK break international law, after reaching an “agreement in principle” on Brexit divorce issues.

Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove said he was “delighted” to have reached a compromise with European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovicon on post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border.

Gove thanked Sefcovic for his “constructive and pragmatic approach”, adding that he would update Parliament on details of the agreement tomorrow.

“Following intensive and constructive work over the past weeks by the EU and the UK, the two co-chairs can now announce their agreement in principle on all issues, in particular with regard to the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland,” the Cabinet Office said in a statement.

The government will now withdraw the most controversial parts of the Internal Market Bill that could have spelt a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

The proposed legislation had seen the EU threaten legal action against the UK, following a bitter row that drew in major figures from around the globe.

Brussels had claimed the parts of the bill relating to Northern Ireland would have jeopardised the Belfast Good Friday Agreement — widely seen as marking the end of the Troubles in Ireland.

US President-elect Joe Biden last month ruled out any future trade accord between American and the UK if Westminster failed to respect the peace treaty.

“We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,” Biden tweeted.

“Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”

The British government has said the clauses are a “safety net” to ensure the free flow of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain if the UK leaves the EU’s customs union without a deal on 31 December.

Read more: Brexit: Michel Barnier tells MEPs that Wednesday is final deadline for deal

Northern Ireland will remain in the EU’s customs union next year, while the rest of the UK will not.

The Cabinet Office said the agreement covered border control posts for checks on animals, plants and derived products and export declarations. It will also apply to the supply of medicines, the supply of chilled meats, and other food products to supermarkets.

“In short, this is potentially good news as it removes one of the stumbling blocks in the negotiations,” said Fawad Razaqzada, market analyst at Think Markets.

“With the probability of a deal rising on the back of Gove’s announcement, the pound has bounced off its lows and it may go on to rise further.”

It comes as crunch Brexit talks continue into the eleventh hour, with the Prime Minister due to fly to Brussels later this week after discussions between the UK and EU’s chief negotiators failed to reach an agreement.

Boris Johnson will meet European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen in a last-minute attempt to thrash out the “remaining significant differences” holding up an agreement.

The PM today said the conclusion of a Brexit trade deal is “looking very, very difficult at the moment” as the major sticking points of fisheries, so-called “level playing field” arrangements and state aid remain.

Johnson has vowed Britain will “prosper mightily” whatever the outcome of trade negotiations, and urged European leaders to “understand that the UK has left the EU in order to be able exercise democratic control over the way we do things”.

Britain will automatically leave the single market and customs union on 1 January if the two sides fail to secure a trade deal. That will mean the EU and UK will likely be forced to trade on World Trade Organisation rules with tariffs imposed in both directions.