Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposals have “damaged trust” and set back talks on a trade deal with the EU, an Irish minister has told Sky News.
The backlash to the prime minister’s Internal Market Bill is continuing, with former prime ministers Sir John Major and Tony Blair joining the chorus of criticism.
It overrides parts of the EU divorce deal and has sparked fury in Brussels, which has threatened legal action over what it considers a violation of an international treaty.
But Mr Johnson has argued the legislation is necessary to avoid “an economic barrier down the Irish Sea”, while Downing Street maintains a trade agreement can still be struck.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s Brexit negotiator, has said the Northern Ireland protocol element of the withdrawal agreement “is not a threat to the integrity of the UK”.
He also denied that Brussels is refusing to list the UK as a third country for food imports.
Lord Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator, responded by saying he wanted to “state a few facts”.
He wrote on Twitter that the EU “knows perfectly well” the situation on food standards rules and said it gives dozens of countries third-party listing “without any sort of commitment about the future”.
“Yet it has been made clear to us in the current talks that there is no guarantee of listing us. I am afraid it has also been said to us explicitly in these talks that if we are not listed we will not be able to move food to Northern Ireland,” he wrote.
“The EU’s position is that listing is needed for Great Britain only, not Northern Ireland. So if GB were not listed, it would be automatically illegal for NI to import food products from GB.”
Ireland’s justice secretary Helen McEntee told Sky’s Sophy Ridge on Sunday that events this week have “certainly set us back”.
She said the push from Mr Johnson to override parts of the Brexit deal he negotiated with Brussels last year has “damaged trust”.
“It’s caused a lot of confusion. I think it has, in some way, damaged trust between both sides,” Ms McEntee told Sky News.
“It’s very difficult to see how you can negotiate a free trade agreement when what has already been agreed is being proposed to be breached less than nine months later.”
Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said Dublin was focused on achieving a “decent free trade deal” and does not think the British government wants the “ruinous” consequences of failure.
In an interview with broadcaster RTE, he described Mr Johnson’s actions in recent days as a “ploy”, adding that his opposite number “knows well” that the EU is not trying to break up the UK.
But Justice Secretary Robert Buckland defended the prime minister’s strategy, saying: “This isn’t something we do lightly, this isn’t something that we actually want to use, this is something that a responsible government does in order to prepare for the worst.
“But can I reiterate our steely determination to get a deal.”
Mr Buckland twice avoided the question when asked if he would resign if the government does not abide by the rule of law.
He also claimed that what the PM was proposing was in accordance with “the most honourable traditions of the British state” which he said was to “alert everyone to a possibility of a problem, to actually legislate to prepare ourselves domestically for that”.
Mr Buckland rejected comparisons between the government’s plans and breaking criminal law, describing them as “wholly misplaced”.
“What we’re talking about here is intricate international law arrangements,” he said.
“I can reassure the Irish government I can reassure all friends in Europe that all we’re seeking to do is prepare the ground domestically if things are not resolved.”
The justice secretary later told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show that “if I see the rule of law being broken in a way I find unacceptable then of course I will go”.
But he added: “I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage.”
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party has confirmed it will seek to amend the legislation to make sure the UK can set rules on state aid there.
Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, EU state aid rules will apply to commerce.
State aid means a government cannot subside a product in order for it to be sold more cheaply in other parts of the bloc.
Labour’s shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Louise Haigh said the legislation was “seriously undermining and jeopardising” the chances of a trade deal with the EU.
She told Sophy Ridge on Sunday: “This is the last thing the country needs right now.
“As we’re attempting to respond to COVID and cope with economic recovery, what we need is a deal with the European Union that protects our trading relationship, protects businesses, protects jobs and protects jobs in Northern Ireland.”