UK must honour agreement to get free trade deal – Varadkar

Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Leo Varadkar says he does not believe a free trade agreement can be reached if the UK does not honour the UK EU Withdrawal Agreement.

Mr Varadkar said he hopes that proposed new Brexit-related Westminster legislation is simply “sabre rattling”, adding that  the strategy and behaviour of the British government a year ago was one of brinkmanship and threatening to crash out of the EU and he hopes that this is just another installment of this.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Varadkar said that it was “extraordinary” to hear comments by the Northern Secretary Brandon Lewis yesterday, particularly as they were made by a cabinet minister in a respected liberal democracy.

Mr Varadkar said that Britain is not a rogue state and these comments set off alarm bells in Dublin.

The Tánaiste added that he believes the statements have backfired and governments around the world  are now “scratching their heads” and wondering if they should ever enter into treaties or contracts with the British government, if this is their attitude.

He pointed out that the Withdrawal Agreement was ratified by the House of Commons and the House of Lords.

Mr Varadkar said he believes the UK does want a deal but there are sticking points around the fisheries and state aid.

He said that he has faith in EU Chief Brexit Negotiator Michael Barnier to “make the right call”.

Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney yesterday described Northern Ireland Secretary Mr Lewis’ admission that the new Brexit-related legislation would break international law as “gravely concerning”.

Mr Coveney described the UK’s positioning as “hugely problematic and illegal”, but called for calm.

Mr Lewis told MPs in the House of Commons yesterday that the UK government planned a new bill, to be published today, that would override elements of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal with Brussels.

Downing Street had insisted changes in the Internal Market Bill were simply “limited clarifications” to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if they failed to secure a free trade deal with the EU.

But Mr Lewis provoked a furious reaction when he confirmed to MPs that the legislation would breach international law in a “very specific and limited way”.

The former Conservative Party MP Dominic Grieve has said it is shocking that the UK government plans to go ahead with implementing a domestic bill that it has admitted breaches international law.

Speaking to RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Grieve, who is a former Attorney General of England and Wales, said that “to suggest it’s proper to decide to trim and alter an international obligation that was only entered into eleven months ago is completely unacceptable”.

Mr Grieve said that to suggest the UK government did not understand the implications of the withdrawal agreement when they signed up to it “is ridiculous”.

He said that it is impossible to see how the current Attorney General Suella Braverman and the Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland can remain in office without destroying their reputations, as they must be seen to uphold the rule of law.

The Government is set to announce additional measures today to help businesses prepare for Brexit.

The announcement will be made by the Taoiseach Micheál Martin, Tánaiste Mr Varadkar, and the ministers for Foreign Affairs and Transport.

It comes as businesses have been urged to intensify preparations for 1 January, amid warnings that new rules could prevent Irish firms from trading smoothly with Britain.

There is also the likelihood of significant delays in moving goods.

Mr Varadkar said a €9,000 grant will be made available to any business to take on somebody or redeploy someone and put them in charge of their customs procedures.

This is not a drill, Mr Varadkar said, “it is not good stuff” but the impact to businesses can be minimised.

Mr Varadkar said he knows that businesses are being pulled in many different directions as a result of Covid-19 but it is important to be as prepared as possible. 

He said that businesses can prepare for some certainties including customs procedures and checks, and all of this will be laid out today.

He acknowledged that businesses cannot prepare for the possibility of tariffs or quotas but that the Government will continue to work with European partners on securing a free trade agreement so this can be avoided.

The Tanaiste said he did not believe that British proposals would give rise to a border between North and South but “it would create difficulties for sure”.

Meanwhile, the latest round of talks on a post-Brexit trade deal continue in London between the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and the UK’s David Frost.

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