26th Jul 2021

EU warns UK of using 'real teeth' in post-Brexit deal

  • Former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier - who may run for French president next year - warned the EU must also learn from Brexit (Photo: European Parliament)

EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Tuesday (27 April) promised "not to hesitate" to use the "real teeth" of the future relations agreement between the UK and EU, if Britain does not comply with the deal.

The warning came as MEPs prepared to vote to ratify the trade and cooperation agreement between the UK and the EU - which will come into force next month, and which has been in force provisionally since January.

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"This agreement comes with real teeth," von der Leyen said, adding that the binding dispute-settlement mechanism in the deal opens up the the "possibility for unilateral remedial measures where necessary".

"We do not want to have to use these tools, but we won't hesitate to use them if necessary," she told MEPs, adding that it is essential to ensure full compliance with the future agreement and the divorce deal too.

There has been unease among several MEPs with the ratification of the agreement, since London is perceived to have walked back unilaterally on the previously-agreed protocol on Northern Ireland, which created fresh trade barriers between the province and the rest of Great Britain.

The protocol was agreed by the government of prime minister Boris Johnson, which then later unilaterally waived some post-Brexit checks on goods entering Northern Ireland.

The tensions around the border in Northern Ireland have led to a flare-up in sectarian violence not seen since the peace accords in 1998.

The EU has argued throughout the post-Brexit negotiations that the protocol is the best chance to ensure peace in Northern Ireland and the integrity of the bloc's single market, to avoid a backdoor for smugglers via the province.

"The protocol is not the problem, the protocol is the solution to the problem. The name of the problem is Brexit," German MEP David McAllister, a top Brexit official in the European Parliament, said.

The EU has taken legal action against the UK for what the commission sees as a breach of the withdrawal agreement.

Lack of trust

Several MEPs spoke of a lack of confidence in London.

"Our worry is now implementation, the question of trust," centre-right group leader, German MEP Manfred Weber said.

"When I grew up, the UK diplomacy was a symbol of credibility. […] Today, when we see the Northern Ireland protocol implementation, how Johnson behaves, the message is 'I don't care, not even about my own signature'," he said.

Under the agreement, if either side diverges from common standards, which have a negative impact, a dispute mechanism can be triggered, which could then lead to tariffs. Tariffs can be targeted at a specific sector.

There will be a binding arbitration system, involving officials from both sides - which was one of the most difficult pieces of the puzzle during the negotiations for diplomats to agree on.

"This is one of the reasons ratification is so important," von der Leyen told MEPs, adding "it will give us the tools we need to ensure full and faithful compliance with the obligation that both sides signed up to."

She added that the commission will put forward legislation on how a retaliatory EU decision should be taken.

Von der Leyen said in recent days there had been constructive talks between UK Brexit minister David Frost and commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič on the border issue in Northern Ireland.

The commission chief said the next step is to mutually agree on a "compliance path with concrete deadlines and milestones".

Failure for the EU

The somber debate in the European Parliament came as French EU minister Clément Beaune said he was concerned by the UK's attitude to French fishing fleets since Brexit, blocking some French fishing boats.

During the debate, former Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had a warning for the EU as well.

'This is a divorce. It's a warning and it is a failure, a failure of the EU, and we have to learn the lessons from it," he said.

The French politician - who is rumoured to plan a possible bid in next year's presidential election in France - said social tensions fuelling Brexit vote also exist in regions of Europe.

"Our duty is to listen and understand the feeling of the people," he said, adding that "this social anger should not be confused with populism".

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