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Ms von der Leyen issued a blistering attack on the prospect of a future free-trade agreement with the UK during her first State of the Union speech to the European Parliament in Brussels. The European Commission President said trade talks were on the verge of collapse following Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s new legislation which risks overriding contentious elements of the deal relating to Northern Ireland. But, Ms von der Leyen has faced a backlash over her furious claims the deal “cannot be unilaterally changed”.
Lorand Bartels, reader in International Law at University of Cambridge, pointed out the EU put forward a series of changes and clarifications to the Withdrawal Agreement back in June.
This included “clarifications to the EU’s trade remedies applied to Northern Ireland”, thus showing the bloc did try to change the deal.
Following Ms von der Leyen’s speech, Mr Bartels wrote on Twitter: “It had escaped my notice that in June the EU proposed a series of amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“These are described as corrections and as dealing with situations unforeseen at the time the WA was signed (as per Art 164 WA).
“The proposed amendments are to do with the UK’s financial contributions, and social security coordination. Others involve Annex 2, which sets out legislation that applies via Art 5(4) without exceptions to NI. Several regulations are proposed for inclusion, which had been omitted by mistake or are new.
“Then there are clarifications to the EU’s trade remedies applied to Northern Ireland. These have no exceptions, unlike ordinary EU customs duties which are waived for products not ‘at risk’ of being moved to the EU. That is strange. Why are these not treated the same as ordinary duties?
“But what do the amendments propose? One says its purpose is to apply safeguards legislation to products not ‘at risk’ of being moved to the EU. But as said, Annex 2 (badly, for duties) applies regardless of risk. Others remove NI as a de facto MS under TDI legislation. Why?
“Also, the UK has not yet (apparently) consented to these amendments. So: what does it mean? Does it affect the new customs legislation we now await?”
Ms Von der Leyen’s speech prompted more Twitter users to question why the EU was able to make amendments.
John Bell wrote on Twitter: “Presumably, if the EU can amend the Withdrawal Agreement to deal with ‘unforeseen situations’, the UK can do the same to deal with the unforeseen situation of the EU withholding Third Country Status from the UK?”
James Thomas added: “Hasn’t the EU stated categorically that the WA cannot be reopened or amended?
“And that the UK has to abide by the original agreement signed by Boris. It does seem there is flexibility.”
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Ms von der Leyen told the European Parliament: “This Withdrawal Agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it, line by line, word by word.
“And together we succeeded. And the result guarantees our citizens’ rights, financial interests, the integrity of the Single Market, and crucially the Good Friday Agreement.
“The EU and UK jointly agreed it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland.
“We will never backtrack on that. This agreement has been ratified by this House and by the House of Commons.
“It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or disapplied. This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”
She also quoted former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher: “Britain does not break treaties.
“It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future treaty on trade”.
Ms von der Leyen then added: “This was true then, and this is true today. Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.”
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