The government is dropping controversial plans to break international law in relation to Brexit, following a behind-the-scenes deal between the UK and the EU, it has announced.
In what could be seen as another olive branch to the EU, it said it would abandon all the Brexit clauses relating to Northern Ireland in the internal market and finance bills.
The U-turn comes in exchange for promises by the EU to minimise checks on controls imposed on food and medicines going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain after Brexit.
Delighted to announce agreement in principle on all issues in the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. Thank you to @MarosSefcovic and his team for their constructive and pragmatic approach.
— Michael Gove (@michaelgove) December 8, 2020
Details on the checks have yet to be disclosed, but in a joint statement from cabinet minister Michael Gove and the European commission vice-president, Maroš Šefčovič, they said they had sealed an agreement “specifically for checks on animals, plants and derived products, export declarations, the supply of medicines, the supply of chilled meats, and other food products to supermarkets”.
🇪🇺🇬🇧 Pleased to announce that thanks to hard work, @michaelgove and I have reached an agreement in principle on all issues re the #WithdrawalAgreement implementation. This will ensure it is fully operational as of 1 Jan, incl. the Protocol on Ireland/NI 👉 https://t.co/RaWNEVbxrtpic.twitter.com/1OCjapNd3F
— Maroš Šefčovič🇪🇺 (@MarosSefcovic) December 8, 2020
They have also agreed which goods will be exempt from state aid rules, what goods are “not at risk” of being smuggled across the border into the Republic of Ireland and the final make-up of an arbitration panel to adjudicate on any future Brexit disputes.
“In view of these mutually agreed solutions, the UK will withdraw clauses 44, 45 and 47 of the UK internal market bill, and not introduce any similar provisions in the taxation bill,” said the statement.
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, described it as a “positive development” and business leaders in Northern Ireland reacted with relief.
Aodhán Connolly, director of the Northern Ireland Retail Consortium, described the move as “very welcome” and “hugely positive”. He is one of several business and farming leaders who have called for the Northern Ireland protocol to be delayed because businesses have not enough notice to prepare for the remaining customs and regulatory checks that will still apply from 1 January.
“We still need the conclusion of a free trade agreement to remove customs frictions, and with three weeks left to go we still will need an implementation period to allow us to comply with the new requirements. While this is a positive step there is still much to do in little time,” he said.
The deal was finalised in Brussels on Monday during a meeting between Gove and Šefčovič, who jointly chair the UK-EU committee charged with implementing the Brexit deal signed in January.
A government source said: “Maroš Šefčovič and his team were constructive and pragmatic. We are pleased that we have reached agreement in principle on a package to apply in all circumstances that will protect Northern Ireland’s place in the UK’s customs territory, uphold the peace process and give certainty to people and businesses in Northern Ireland.”
Under the deal the two sides have also agreed “the exemption of agricultural and fish subsidies from state aid rules”.
The removal of the Brexit clauses clears the path of any further domestic legislative threats to a trade deal. Serious differences remain, with Johnson warning that securing a deal at an imminent summit with the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, would be “very difficult”.
The introduction of the Brexit clauses – which would have broken the law “in a very specific and limited way”, the Commons was told – initially poisoned relations between the UK and the EU and led to infringement proceedings being launched by Brussels on the grounds they would break the terms of the international treaty.
Katy Hayward, professor of political sociology at Queen’s University, welcomed the move but added that the deal needed to be signed off by all member states.