Boris Johnson has defended the UK government’s decision to break international law by breaching part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement treaty by suggesting the EU is threatening to impose a trade border down the Irish Sea.

Writing in the UK’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, he said: “We are now hearing that, unless we agree to the EU’s terms, the EU will use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea.

“We are being told that the EU will not only impose tariffs on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but that they might actually stop the transport of food products from GB to NI.”

The UK government’s move has been criticised by former UK Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Sir John Major and David Cameron, who argue unilaterally rewriting internationally agreed legislation will damage the country’s reputation for trustworthiness. 

The UK is engaged in talks with the EU in the hope of agreeing a trade deal which would kick in after the post-Brexit transition period finishes at the end of this year but many observers believe the prospect of that happening are further diminished by the planned UK Internal Market Bill, effectively a re-writing of the withdrawal agreement signed in January when Britain left the bloc.

But Johnson said in his newspaper article a new law was needed to protect free trade between the four constituent nations of the UK.

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He said he had become “anxious” in the last few weeks that the EU might have misunderstood the terms of the Brexit divorce deal which includes a Northern Ireland protocol designed to prevent any hard border between the British province and the Irish republic.

The Prime Minister claimed the EU could effectively impose a food blockade across the Irish Sea by refusing to grant the UK approved “third party” status for food exports, which officials say Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has “explicitly” threatened.

Johnson said the new law was a “legal safety net” which would “sort out the inconsistencies”.

However, according to news agency Reuters, Barnier said the bloc had not refused to add the UK to its list.

Meanwhile, international law experts have questioned Johnson’s interpretation of events.

Dr. Holger Hestermeyer, a reader in international dispute resolution at King’s College London said: “Allow me to give comfort to those worried that the EU would starve Northern Ireland. The provisions of the NI Protocol will be implemented by the UK, not the EU. So the only party in a position to actually block food supply between GB and NI under the agreement is the UK.”

And Steve Peers, professor of the School of Law at the University of Essex, said: “This [Johnson’s interpretation] misrepresents the issue – if there’s a disagreement, the withdrawal agreement provides for a dispute settlement process, not for one side to breach it in order to insist on its own interpretation.”

just-food has asked the European Commission for a response to Prime Minister Johnson’s comments.