EU says Brexit deal is ‘legal obligation which binds UK’ after Jacob Rees-Mogg comments

The European Commission has reminded the UK government that the Brexit deal is a “binding” legal obligation, after a senior Conservative minister said there was no need to stand by the agreement.

Jacob Rees-Mogg on Wednesday told a committee of MPs that it was “nonsense” that the UK had to stick to the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol, which the government negotiated and ratified as part of exiting the European Union.

On Friday a a spokesperson for the EU’s executive hit back and told reporters in Brussels on Friday that “the withdrawal agreement, the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, are legal obligations to which the UK is bound”.

Mr Rees-Mogg, who is Boris Johnson’s minister for Brexit opportunities, had told a hearing of parliament’s EU scrutiny committee: “A lot of commentary that says: ‘Well, we signed it and therefore surely we should accept it lock, stock and barrel.’ That’s absolute nonsense.

“We signed it on the basis that it would be reformed. And there comes a point at which you say: ‘Well, you haven’t reformed it and therefore we are reforming it ourselves.’ And the United Kingdom is much more important than any agreement that we have with any foreign power.”

On Friday morning the Financial Times additionally reported that Boris Johnson is preparing to bring forward laws override parts of the Brexit agreement in UK statue.

The powers are expected to be included in the Queen’s Speech next month and would likely spark a new political conflict with Brussels. Some unionists are annoyed that the protocol imposes frictions on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland though polls show the agreement generally has popular support there.

Asked about the reports, a European Commission spokesperson told reporters in Brussels: “It will come as absolutely no surprise to that we have no comment on press reports or unnamed sources, or other comments. I think more generally, I can simply reiterate what we have said a number of times in this press room: that we are fully committed to working jointly with the UK government to find long-lasting solutions for Northern Ireland, to bring about long-lasting certainty and predictability for people and businesses in Northern Ireland.

“Only joint solutions can do that: jointly-agreed solutions. And if you look at it, this approach is working. Only a couple of days ago we reached the solution on medicines for Northern Ireland which was agreed in record time. It’s important to underline that.

“As you know, last October, we came forward with a number of serious, wide-ranging solutions for Northern Ireland. We’ve been working on them since and our intention is to continue working on these solutions with the UK over the coming weeks. I think finally, it’s important to to underline as well that our agreements, the withdrawal agreement, the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, are legal obligations to which the UK is bound as much as we are.”

The spokesperson added that EU and UK teams had been in regular contact on the issue at both a technical and political level.

Under the Northern Ireland Brexit protocol, Northern Ireland remains in the EU single market and customs area – a provision agreed by both sides to prevent a hard border from being required between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Both sides wanted to achieve this aim to preserve the Good Friday Agreement and peace process.

But the agreement means there are some checks on trade and extra frictions between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, because the government wanted to take Britain out of the customs union and single market under its hard Brexit policy.

Recent polling from October 2021 conducted by LucidTalk to Queen’s University Belfast revealed 52 per cent of respondents believe the post-Brexit arrangement to be a “good thing”, up from 43 per cent in June that year. Asked whether the UK would be justified in triggering Article 16 53 per cent of respondents said no and 39 per cent who responded yes.

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