No 10 offers to drop internal market bill clauses if EU deal agreed

source https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2020/dec/07/no-10-offers-to-drop-internal-market-bill-clauses-if-eu-deal-agreed

The government has said it may drop sections of its internal market bill that would breach international law by letting the UK unilaterally rewrite parts of the Brexit departure agreement, in a potential sign of softening attitudes.

A government statement said the change in stance followed talks between the UK and EU via the withdrawal agreement joint committee, the body intended to iron out disagreements over the document, signed in January.

The concession is conditional on the two sides agreeing a final trade deal, the next step of the Brexit process, for which last-ditch talks are still taking place. It had been widely predicted that this would happen in the event of a trade deal.

The announcement came shortly before the internal market bill is considered by the Commons again, after the House of Lords voted overwhelmingly to amend it to remove the elements that would breach international law.

Ministers have said these would be restored by the Commons. If this happens, the bill would return to the Lords as part of a process known as ping-pong – but agreement on a trade bill could end the legislative impasse.

“Discussions continue to progress and final decisions are expected in the coming days,” said the statement released by Boris Johnson’s office.

“If the solutions being considered in those discussions are agreed, the UK government would be prepared to remove clause 44 of the UK internal market bill, concerning export declarations.

“The UK government would also be prepared to deactivate clauses 45 and 47, concerning state aid, such that they could be used only when consistent with the United Kingdom’s rights and obligations under international law.”

Clause 45 of the bill sets out that the UK government could change import and export procedures for goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, and amend elements of the associated Northern Ireland protocol, “notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”.

The measures, which the government openly conceded would breach international law, prompted criticism from both opposition parties and EU politicians, even if many people did see it as primarily a lever for Brexit negotiations.

The UK government has insisted the clauses are necessary as a failsafe to preserve goods going to Northern Ireland in the event of a disorderly Brexit once the transition period finishes at the end of the year, with tariffs added to goods from the rest of the UK seen as “at risk” of entering the EU by going on to the Republic of Ireland.

The statement follows last-minute talks in Brussels on Monday between Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the European commission.

The UK government statement added: “Good progress continues to be made regarding the decision as to which goods are ‘at risk’ of entering the EU market. Talks continue this afternoon.

“In the light of those discussions, the government will keep under review the content of the forthcoming taxation bill.”

The taxation bill, another post-Brexit measure expected in the Commons imminently, had also been predicted to contain clauses breaching international law.

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