The UK has demanded “more realism” from the European Union ahead of crucial post-Brexit trade talks, which get under way in London.
However, the mood was soured by reports that the British government was looking to rewrite the Withdrawal Agreement that the two sides have already signed.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief negotiator David Frost, said “we must make progress this week” if an agreement is to be reached by the end of a post-Brexit transition period in December.
For that, “we need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country”, he said ahead of the talks with the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier.
“If they can’t do that in the very limited time we have left, then we will be trading on terms like those the EU has with Australia, and we are ramping up our preparations for the end of the year.”
Talks have been deadlocked for months over issues such as the extent of EU access to UK fishing waters, state aid and fair competition rules.
Both sides say a deal must be agreed by a mid-October EU summit.
But there was concern in Brussels after The Financial Times reported Mr Johnson planned to legislate to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement struck before Britain left the EU in January.
“Everything that has been signed must be respected,” Mr Barnier warned, saying he would discuss it with Mr Frost.
Taoiseach Micheál Martin said the UK’s trade talks with the European Union would be rendered “null and void” if the Withdrawal Agreement it signed up to is not implemented in full.
“The Withdrawal Agreement is an international treaty and we expect the UK government to implement and to adhere to what was agreed. We trust them to do so or they would render the talks process null and void”, Mr Martin told the Irish Examiner in an interview.
The FT said legislation to be put before the UK parliament this week would undermine agreements relating to Northern Ireland customs and state aid.
Under the protocol, Northern Ireland will follow some of the EU’s rules to ensure the border remains open.
Mr Johnson agreed to the Withdrawal Agreement last year, but he now believes there is an “unforeseen” risk that it will leave Northern Ireland isolated from the rest of the UK, the Daily Telegraph reported.
“I trust the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement, an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said.
Mr Johnson’s spokesman said the UK government was “fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and we have already taken many practical steps to do”.
But he said it was taking “limited and reasonable steps to clarify specific elements” of the protocol in UK law, to “remove any ambiguity”.
“This would be a very unwise way to proceed,” Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said in response to the FT report.
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said the UK would show “total disregard for the lives and concern of the people of Ireland” if it backtracked on the Brexit deal.
Belgian MEP Philippe Lamberts said that without an explicit commitment from the UK that they “intend to abide by their signature” and honour the Withdrawal Agreement in full, there is no point in negotiating another treaty on the future relationship with the UK.
Mr Lamberts, who is a member of the European Union’s Brexit Steering Committee, said conditions within the agreement that give “special treatment to Northern Ireland” are something UK Brexiteers hate but “that was the price of the deal”.
Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, he said the agreement was negotiated for more than a year under two British prime ministers, including a renegotiation with Mr Johnson, and has been “sealed and signed” by him and ratified by both the UK and the EU Parliament.
Mr Lamberts said the UK cannot “unilaterally clarify” something that has been agreed between two parties.
Jitters have been felt on the currency market, where the pound slid against the dollar and euro on fears that the UK-EU talks would fail and severely disrupt trade ties.
Some analysts, however, suggested the row over Northern Ireland was a move by London to raise the pressure in the trade talks.
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar said the increased rhetoric from London and Brussels was inevitable “sabre-rattling” and “posturing” as the deadline approached.
Mr Johnson has said that failing to reach agreement would still be a “good outcome” for Britain, dubbing it an “Australia-style” deal.
However, Australia trades with the EU under World Trade Organization rules and tariffs, which would cause significant disruption to cross-channel trade.
Britain formally left the 27-member EU on 31 January but remains bound by EU rules until the end of December while it tries to thrash out new terms of its relationship.
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