UK admits Brexit deal change may break law in 'limited way'

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LONDON • Britain headed into a fresh round of Brexit trade talks yesterday, acknowledging it could break international law but only in “a limited way” after reports saying it may undercut its divorce treaty with the European Union.

As the pound fell on fears of a no-deal exit, the government’s legal department head quit because he felt a plan to overwrite parts of the withdrawal agreement treaty signed in January was wrong.

Britain left the EU on Jan 31, but trade talks have made little headway as the clock ticks down to an Oct 15 deadline and then the end of the status quo transition arrangement in late December.

As diplomats gauged whether Prime Minister Boris Johnson was blustering or serious about allowing a tumultuous finale to the four-year saga, Britain insisted it would abide by the treaty.

Asked if anything in the proposed legislation potentially breached international legal obligations or arrangements, Minister for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis said: “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

“We are taking the powers to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in a certain, very tightly defined circumstance,” he told Parliament.

He added that the government supported the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement.

Amid EU warnings that if Britain reneged on the divorce deal there would be no trade agreement, former prime minister Theresa May told the government it risked serious damage to its international image. “How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” Mrs May, who resigned after her Brexit deal was repeatedly rejected, told Parliament.

The Financial Times said the government’s “very unhappy” legal head Jonathan Jones walked out in protest over the possible plan to undercut the withdrawal agreement in relation to the protocol for British-ruled Northern Ireland.

The prospect of a messy divorce between the EU’s US$16 trillion (S$22 trillion) and the United Kingdom’s US$3 trillion economies pushed sterling to two-week lows.

The latest round of negotiations in London is likely to be tough: Britain says the EU has failed to understand it is now independent – especially when it comes to fishing and state aid. The EU says it needs specifics from London and that Britain cannot make its own rules and have preferential access to its markets.

REUTERS

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