Michael Gove tells EU that UK 'would not and could not' withdraw new Brexit bill despite threatened legal action
Video report by ITV News Political Correspondent Daniel Hewitt
Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove says he told the European Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic in emergency talks on Thursday that the Government "would not and could not" withdraw its Internal Market Bill.
At a stormy meeting in London, Mr Sefcovic gave the UK until the end of the month to drop the controversial provisions in the Internal Market Bill or face the potential collapse of talks on a free trade agreement.
Should the UK fail to do so, the European Union said it will "not shy" away from taking legal action.
However, Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove – who co-chairs a joint committee on the Withdrawal Agreement with Mr Sefcovic – said the Government was not prepared to back down.
Following the meeting, Mr Gove said: "Vice-president Sefcovic also requested that the UK withdraw its Internal Market legislation.
"I explained to Vice-president Sefcovic that we could not and would not do that and instead I stressed the vital importance of reaching agreement through the joint committee on these important questions."
"I made it perfectly clear to Vice-president Sefcovic that we would not be withdrawing this legislation. He understood that, of course he regretted it," said Mr Gove.
"But we also stressed the vital importance of making progress."
In a statement released after the extraordinary meeting” of the joint committee sparked by Boris Johnson’s move to override part of the Brexit divorce deal, the European Commission set out uncompromising terms.
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"Violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations,” the statement said. The EU did not “accept the argument” that the UK Internal Market Bill was needed to protect the Good Friday Agreement. “In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” the statement said. “Vice-president Maros Sefcovic called on the UK Government to withdraw these measures from the draft Bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month. “He stated that by putting forward this Bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK Government to re-establish that trust.”
However, Mr Gove said the legislation is "critical to ensuring there is unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom".
He said that he was looking forward to the second reading of the bill in the House of Commons next week.
"We are a unionist party," said Mr Gove. "And the Labour Party is as well. So therefore I hope that across the House of Commons there'll be a recognition that we have an obligation to the people of Northern Ireland in order to make sure that they'll continue to have unfettered access.
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"But of course, we as a government also have an obligation which we take equally seriously to make sure the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol are implemented in a way to make sure that the gains of the Good Friday Belfast Agreement are absolutely secured and enhanced in the future."
He added: "I hope we will see progress in the course of the weeks ahead but it's not for me to speculate about the chances of success, it's my job to work for success."
Ahead of the meeting, the EU had expressed “serious concerns” over Mr Johnson’s move ahead of the emergency talks with the UK.
European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic said he would listen to what Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove had to say before deciding whether Britain can still be trusted.
The meeting of the UK-EU joint committee in London was arranged after the Government tabled legislation to alter key elements of the Withdrawal Agreement that Mr Johnson signed with Brussels.
The Prime Minister infuriated senior members of his own party and Brussels just as trade deal negotiations reached a crunch week, when ministers admitted they could break international law over the deal.
Mr Sefcovic, arriving at St Pancras, told reporters: “I came here to express the serious concerns that the European Union has over the proposed Bill. So that will be the nature of our discussions today.”
Asked if he has lost trust in the UK Government, Mr Sefcovic replied: “Let’s hear what Michael Gove will tell me this afternoon.”
Mr Gove was expected to tell his counterpart the UK remains committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol and must “provide a safety net that removes any ambiguity” during the talks scheduled for two hours, Downing Street said.
Meanwhile, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his counterpart from Downing Street, Lord Frost, were to meet for the final day of the eighth round of trade deal negotiations in London.
Mr Johnson has argued that the UK Internal Markets Bill tabled this week is necessary to preserve unfettered trade within the UK and prevent a border between Britain and Northern Ireland.
But he has dismayed Brussels by threatening to breach international law.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard rips into the Government's move to override part of the Brexit divorce bill
There is also widespread criticism at home, with Lord Howard becoming the third Conservative former party leader to criticise Mr Johnson’s plans as he accused the Government of damaging the UK’s “reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law”.
“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he told the House of Lords.
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin called the Prime Minister to express his concerns, including “the breach of an international treaty, the absence of bilateral engagement and the serious implications for Northern Ireland”.
The move has also angered some in the US, where Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said there is “absolutely no chance” of Congress passing a trade deal with the UK if it threatens the Northern Ireland peace process.
“Whatever form it takes, Brexit cannot be allowed to imperil the Good Friday Agreement, including the stability brought by the invisible and frictionless border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland,” Ms Pelosi said.
“If the UK violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a US-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”
Ministers argue the new proposed legislation is necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if London and Brussels are unable to agree a free trade deal before the current Brexit transition period runs out at the end of the year.
Tory former prime ministers Sir John Major and Theresa May have also criticised the move.
Sir John said: “For generations, Britain’s word, solemnly given, has been accepted by friend and foe.
“Our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct.
“Over the last century, as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power.
“If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer insisted Mr Johnson needs to secure a deal with the EU.
He said: “If you fail to get a deal, Prime Minister, you own that failure.”