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The Brussels diplomat told allies he was suspicious Britain could be deliberately stalling its preparations for the end of the transition period in a bid to secure concessions from the bloc. Boris Johnson sparked fury in the Belgian capital after he unveiled plans to hand powers to ministers to rip up sections of last year’s Brexit divorce deal relating to Northern Ireland. Despite the anger, the Prime Minister has refused to remove any contentious clauses in the Internal Market Bill.
Ministers have promised to fight any attempt to remove the powers from the legislation, which the Government has admitted breaches international law.
They are expected to be handed a defeat when the House of Lords vote on the Bill later this afternoon.
In a series of private briefings last week, Mr Barnier told allies he believed Downing Street had kept the threat of ripping up the Withdrawal Agreement on the table in an attempt to convince Brussels to “reopen” the document.
According to EU sources, the Frenchman told MEPs: “We have concerns about the British preparations on certain aspects.
“We fear that the Brits are using the Internal Market Bill as a form of leverage to reopen subjects that we had agreed upon in the Withdrawal Agreement.”
He insisted the EU would not back down in the row over the legislation and would continue to watch the implementation of last year’s Brexit divorce deal closely.
Last week, No10 defied EU demands to halt plans to rip up the Brexit deal if trade talks collapse.
Mr Johnson snubbed the one-month deadline set by Brussels for the UK to respond after the bloc threatened to sue.
Eurocrats are considering stepping up legal action but Downing Street said it was not backing down.
The Prime Minister insisted the legislation was a vital “safety net” that would prevent Brussels from blocking food exports to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK if a trade deal cannot be reached.
The EC said it was considering a “reasoned opinion” – a two-month ultimatum to obey EU rules – before further action was taken.
A spokesman said: “We are fully dedicated to the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement. That is an agreement we reached with the UK in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, in order to protect peace and stability on the island of Ireland.
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“That agreement now needs to be fully implemented and ready to go on January 1.”
Downing Street’s plans have also attracted criticism from US President-elect Joe Biden.
During his campaign, the Democrat, who has Irish roots, said: “Any trade deal between the US and UK must be contingent upon respect for the [Good Friday] Agreement and preventing the return of a hard border.”
Ireland is banking on Mr Biden’s electoral success to have an impact on the Brexit process.
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Foreign minister Simon Coveney said: “I think perhaps it does make a difference.
“Joe Biden is a real friend of Ireland, he is somebody who in the middle of this campaign has taken the time to make a very clear statement on the need to prevent a hard border at any point in the future linked to Brexit policy.
“The relationship between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson was a close one and there was a lot of talk about a US-UK trade deal happening quickly.
“Now that Joe Biden is going to be the next president, I certainly think that will be a cause for a pause for thought in No 10 to ensure Irish issues are prioritised as we try to close out this phase.”
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