Brussels’ plummeting trust in Boris Johnson has been laid bare in leaked diplomatic cables obtained by the Guardian, as the Brexit negotiations reopen in London with a warning from the European commission president that Britain must respect international law.
Ursula von der Leyen made her extraordinary intervention on Monday as Downing Street struggled to control the damage from disclosures suggesting it was backtracking on agreements made last year to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
“I trust the British government to implement the withdrawal agreement, an obligation under international law & prerequisite for any future partnership,” Von der Leyen posted on Twitter. “[The] protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland is essential to protect peace and stability on the island & integrity of the single market.”
The row over plans that could undermine the legal force of parts of the protocol on Northern Ireland came as leaked cables seen by the Guardian reveal the growing suspicion in Brussels of Britain’s motivations and strategy, said by sources to have been further damaged by the latest developments.
According to cables sent to EU capitals from Brussels in recent days:
- Johnson is suspected of holding back on finding a compromise on the key outstanding issues of fisheries, state aid and dispute resolution until the last moment in order to achieve a last-minute “trade off”. The strategy has been described by officials in the chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier’s team as “concerning” given the complexity of the issues. “These points will not be easy to iron out with just a phone call between leaders,” a commission official had told EU diplomats. “It is leaving it too late.”
- The European commission fears the home secretary, Priti Patel, will attempt to go round Brussels and open side negotiations on internal security after inviting ministers from the five largest EU member states to a meeting in London on 22 September. Commission officials have asked the capitals to avoid agreeing to any British proposals that are made there. “We need to be clear that nothing can be decided in those fields subject to negotiation,” officials advised.
- The UK is accused of recently “introducing” a new “concept” in the negotiations over access to British waters for European fishing fleets under which “80% of the common stocks” have been designated as “priority stocks” on which British fishermen have the biggest claim.
- The commission fears Downing Street is behind a barrage of anti-EU articles in the British press, citing reports accusing Brussels of intransigence directly ahead of the last round of talks. The recent talks between Barnier and the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, were described by the commission as “disappointing”.
The revelations provide the worst possible backdrop to the latest round of negotiations, which start in London on Tuesday, with Frost reiterating on Monday night the two sides “must make progress this week if we are to reach an agreement in time”.
Although Frost urged the EU to show “more realism about our status as an independent country”, the eve of the talks was dominated by the fallout from the proposals in the government’s internal market bill, due to be published on Wednesday.
The former Conservative chancellor Philip Hammond and the ex-justice secretary David Gauke added their voices to growing opposition to the draft legislation, which critics claim will negate key parts of the withdrawal agreement.
Gauke said the government would be “taking the most extraordinary risk” if it sought to unilaterally change the protocol through draft legislation due to be published on Wednesday.
“Any attempt to backslide from the commitments made in the Northern Ireland protocol would be seen as an act of bad faith by the EU and the wider world,” he said. “It would undermine trust and likely result not just in no deal, but an acrimonious no deal.”