Boris Johnson on Tuesday announced the scrapping of all “lawbreaking” clauses from controversial UK Brexit legislation, in a major boost to relations between London and Brussels.
The EU and UK said they had agreed a deal on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol, part of Britain’s withdrawal treaty, to govern future trade between mainland Britain and the region.
Although the Northern Ireland deal is not directly linked to separate stalled talks on a UK-EU trade agreement, it will markedly improve the atmosphere around those negotiations and build confidence between the two sides.
The diplomatic breakthrough allowed Mr Johnson to announce he was deleting clauses from legislation allowing British ministers to breach the treaty, which would have broken international law.
The contentious clauses will be removed from the UK internal market bill, while the government also announced that it would not be introducing similar clauses to a separate taxation bill.
Downing Street said the agreement, brokered by cabinet office minister Michael Gove and European Commission vice-president Maros Sefcovic, was “very good” but insisted it did not “signify anything for the wider negotiation”.
The clauses in the legislation were billed by Mr Johnson as a “safety net” to ensure the smooth flow of trade across the Irish Sea from mainland Great Britain to Northern Ireland after Brexit, when the region will remain subject to the EU customs code.
But the introduction of the measures, which ministers admitted would break international law, was condemned by the EU and soured relations with Brussels.
Mr Gove is expected to give a statement to MPs on the breakthrough, which comes as Mr Johnson prepares to travel to Brussels this week to try to unlock wider talks on a trade deal.
The Northern Ireland agreement covers issues including border checks on animals and plants, export declarations, the supply of medicines and the supply of food products including chilled meat to supermarkets.
The agreement also lists the criteria for goods considered “at risk” of entering the EU when moving from Great Britain to the region, thus potentially making them liable for tariffs.
Earlier Mr Johnson warned that securing a Brexit trade deal in Brussels this week would be “very difficult” but claimed that the “power of sweet reason” could yet get an agreement over the line.
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, and David Frost, his British counterpart, on Tuesday began putting together a dossier outlining the remaining sticking points before handing negotiations over to their political bosses.
Big differences remain on the fair competition “level playing field”, the governance of a trade deal and fisheries.
Diplomats said that Mr Barnier was “gloomy” during a video meeting with Europe ministers on Tuesday. At one point during the session, he quoted French Fourth Republic politician Pierre Mendès-France, saying the EU “must not sacrifice the future for the present”.
Mr Barnier told ministers that the timing of the meeting between Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, and Mr Johnson was undecided. He said that negotiators would use the little time left to try to find solutions.
On Twitter after the meeting, Mr Barnier wrote that there was “full unity” behind the EU’s negotiating position. EU officials said that there had been close co-ordination over the weekend between Brussels and national leaders to ensure the bloc holds a common line despite the pressure of time running out.
Mr Johnson told the BBC during a visit to a hospital: “We will see where we get to in the course of the next two days, but I think the UK government’s position is that we are willing to engage at any level, political or otherwise, we are willing to try anything.”
Mr Johnson’s reference to “the next two days” suggested talks with Ms von der Leyen could take place on Wednesday or even Thursday: at lunchtime on Thursday, EU leaders gather in Brussels for a European Council meeting to which Mr Johnson is not invited.
In a call on Monday with Ms von der Leyen and European Council president Charles Michel, France’s Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel agreed that the Brexit negotiations should be kept away from the summit agenda.
Brussels on Tuesday confirmed that the uncertain outcome of the talks meant it was getting closer to proposing no-deal contingency measures to address some of the worst potential impacts of failure. These would then need to be fast-tracked through the EU Council and parliament.
The European Commission has been under pressure from national governments for weeks to confirm it will take emergency measures to ensure, for example, that planes are still authorised to fly routes between the EU and the UK and that hauliers can cross the Channel.
EU officials said that leaders may take up the issue at this week’s summit if the commission has failed to act by then.
Manfred Weber, the head of the centre-right European People’s party group in the European Parliament, said it was a good signal that there would be a bilateral meeting between Mr Johnson and Ms von der Leyen.
But he warned: “We will not rubber stamp an agreement, that is why we still need time for making a fair assessment.”
EU diplomats said that any UK attempts to negotiate directly with leaders such as Mr Macron and Ms Merkel would be resisted by European governments, which want Brussels to remain the UK’s counterpart for talks.
Two senior French officials confirmed on Tuesday that both Ms Merkel and Mr Macron have insisted that the negotiation remains between the UK and the EU and does not take any kind of bilateral turn.