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European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic speaks outside Europe House in London on Sept. 10, 2020.

TOLGA AKMEN/AFP/Getty Images

Instead of closing in on a future trade deal, the European Union and Britain fought bitterly Thursday over a planned British law that the EU says would constitute a serious violation of the Brexit divorce agreement and destroy what little trust remains between the two sides.

The 27-country bloc said Britain must withdraw the planned law dealing with Northern Ireland trade by the end of the month or face a legal battle even before the transition period after Britain’s EU departure ends on Dec. 31.

“By putting forward this bill, the U.K. has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the U.K. It is now up to the U.K. government to re-establish that trust,” European Commission Vice-President Maros Sefcovic said, using language that, by the EU’s diplomatic standards, was furious.

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He spoke after meeting Britain’s chief Brexit minister, Michael Gove, at a hastily arranged meeting in London.

Less than a year ago the two sides signed and ratified a withdrawal agreement that Britain now acknowledges it will violate with its Internal Market Bill, which would diminish the EU’s oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. That’s a sensitive issue because Northern Ireland has the U.K’s only land border with an EU member state, Ireland.

“If the bill were to be adopted, it would constitute an extremely serious violation of the Withdrawal Agreement and of international law,” Mr. Sefcovic said.

He said that if Britain didn’t change course by the end of September, “the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using.”

The British government announced this week that it plans to legislate to give itself the power to deviate from some of the provisions in the agreement about Northern Ireland trade.

The U.K. has acknowledged that the proposed legislation breaks international law “in a very specific and limited way.” But it argues that it is acting legally under British law because according to the “fundamental principle of Parliamentary sovereignty treaty obligations only become binding to the extent that they are enshrined in domestic legislation.”

Britain and the EU have jointly promised in the Brexit divorce agreement to ensure there are no customs posts and other obstacles on the Northern Ireland-Ireland border.

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An open border underpins the peace agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Any hardening of the border could anger nationalists who want a united Ireland. But any new barriers to trade across the Irish Sea would rile Unionists who want Northern Ireland to stay British.

Both Britain and the EU claim to be acting to preserve peace.

Britain says its law is intended to ensure there are no barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. in the event that there is no deal with the EU. On Thursday, it said it would try to push the bill into law quickly, scheduling it for debate in Parliament starting Monday.

Mr. Gove said Britain “could not and would not” withdraw the bill.

“This legislation is critical to ensuring there is unfettered access for goods from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom,” he said.

Mr. Sefcovic said the EU “does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft Bill is to protect” Northern Ireland’s peace agreement.

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“In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite,” he said.

The EU has an ally in Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. She said Britain would have no chance of striking a coveted trade deal with the United States if it breached an international treaty and undermined Northern Ireland’s peace accord “How can they walk away from an international agreement? How do you trust that?” Ms. Pelosi said at a news conference at the U.S. Capitol Thursday.

“What were they thinking?” Ms. Pelosi said. “They’re not thinking of the U.K.-U.S. bilateral trade agreements.”

Many British politicians and lawyers have also expressed alarm, saying that reneging on a legally binding international commitment would trash Britain’s reputation for upholding law and order.

The top civil servant in the government’s legal department resigned this week, reportedly because of opposition to the proposed law.

Former Conservative leader Michael Howard, a supporter of Brexit, said the government was damaging “our reputation for probity and respect for the rule of the law.”

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“How can we reproach Russia or China or Iran when their conduct falls below internationally accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?” he said in Parliament.

Britain left the political structures of the EU on Jan. 31 and will make an economic break when an 11-month transition period ends on Dec. 31. The two sides are trying to strike a new trade deal by then, but talks have bogged down over issues including fishing rights in U.K. waters and fair-competition rules for businesses.

The two sides' chief negotiators, David Frost and Michel Barnier, are due to end their latest round of negotiations on Thursday. Both sides say that unless there is an agreement by next month, Britain is facing an economically disruptive no-deal exit on Jan. 1.

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