By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — The UK government will drop controversial sections of its Internal Market Bill that would violate the deal regulating its withdrawal from the EU, it said after reaching an agreement with the European Commission on Tuesday (8 December).
The surprise U-turn comes after UK minister Michael Gove and Commission Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič agreed a compromise text finalising the rules that will be used for checks on animals, export declarations, and the supply of medicines and food between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Gove and Šefčovič are the co-chairs of the EU-UK Joint Committee on implementing the UK’s withdrawal agreement, ratified in January.
Tuesday’s agreement also covers the application of state aid under the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, designed to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
The compromise also finalises the composition of the arbitration panels that will decide on any disputes between the EU and UK under the Protocol, the EU’s presence in Northern Ireland and the criteria for goods to be considered “not at risk” of entering the EU when moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland from 1 January, when the UK leaves the EU’s single market and customs union.
Under the agreement, Johnson’s government has promised to withdraw the contentious parts of its Internal Market Bill relating to the Northern Ireland protocol and not to introduce any similar provisions in its upcoming Taxation Bill.
In exchange, the EU has promised to minimise its checks on controls imposed on food and medicines going into Northern Ireland from Great Britain.
The precise details of the checks are expected to be published in the coming days.
Although the negotiations on implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, which formally took the UK out of the EU, are separate from the deadlocked talks on an EU-UK trade deal, this agreement does remove one of the major hurdles facing any EU-UK trade agreement, should a pact be agreed this month.
The European Commission had launched legal proceedings against the UK in October over the legislation, which UK ministers had admitted would breach the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement. For its part, the European Parliament had threatened to block any trade pact with the UK until the offending sections of the bill had been dropped.
Gove praised the EU team for being “constructive and pragmatic”, while Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, described the deal as a “positive development”.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson will travel to Brussels later this week for talks with Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen in a bid to unlock an overall trade agreement with the EU but warned on Tuesday that the prospects of a deal were “very difficult”.
The Gove/Šefčovič deal should also allow Johnson’s government to avoid a constitutional row with the House of Lords, which had removed the controversial sections of the bill.