Legislation which will override the Northern Ireland Protocol section of the post-Brexit deal that the UK agreed with the EU does not breach international law, the government has insisted.
But the controversial bill, which has just been published, has been heavily criticised by senior EU figures.
The bill to amend the protocol unilaterally will allow changes to the mechanism which Boris Johnson says will make it easier for goods to pass between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has insisted the UK government “is acting under international law” with the new legislation.
“We are changing the protocol, we are not getting rid of the protocol. I think that is important to acknowledge,” Ms Truss told broadcasters.
“We have to take the actions to protect the people across the United Kingdom, we have to take the actions to protect peace and stability in Northern Ireland – and that is exactly what we are doing.”
The foreign secretary also disputed that the legislation may not be triggered and is being used for negotiating purposes, adding: “We are completely serious about this legislation.”
But despite the PM earlier calling the suggested protocol changes “trivial” and “not a big deal”, senior EU figures have warned of the damage they could cause and have hinted at possible legislative action to prevent them.
An EU source has told Sky News that Brussels will restart legal proceedings against the UK over breaching the Brexit withdrawal treaty of 2020.
Maros Sefcovic, European Commission vice-president, told the foreign secretary on Monday morning that the decision to unilaterally override the agreement was “damaging to mutual trust and a formula for uncertainty”.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said the bill “marks a particular low point in the UK’s approach to Brexit” and said the plan would “ratchet up” tension and breach the UK’s international commitments.
Elsewhere, a majority of MLAs in the Stormont Assembly signed a joint letter to Mr Johnson stating their opposition to proposed legislation to amend the Northern Ireland Protocol.
But the PM has insisted the legislation would introduce “relatively simple” changes and said it would be a “gross overreaction” by the EU if they sought to retaliate by triggering a trade war.
Ministers have said all parties in Northern Ireland recognise there are problems with the protocol, which is designed to prevent a hard border with the Republic of Ireland but effectively creates a border in the Irish Sea with goods imported from Britain subject to customs checks.
The DUP has refused to support power sharing until the issues are resolved.
The party’s leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, speaking after the Bill had been published, said: “The DUP will judge what constitutes decisive action as we see this Bill progressing.”
The new Bill creates a framework to allow ministers at Westminster to introduce changes in four areas covering customs and agri-food safety checks, regulation, subsidy controls and the role of the European Court of Justice.
In a legal policy paper, published alongside the Bill, the government sets out why it believes the legislation is lawful.
“It is the government’s assessment that the legislation is currently the only way to provide the means to alleviate the socio-political conditions, while continuing to support the protocol’s objectives, including supporting North-South trade and cooperation, and the interests of both the EU and the UK,” the document states.
It continues: “It is the government’s position that in light of the state of necessity, any such non-performance of its obligations contained in the Withdrawal Agreement and/or the protocol as a result of the planned legislative measures would be justified as a matter of international law.
“This justification lasts as long as the underlying reasons for the state of necessity are present.
“The current assessment is that this situation and its causes will persist into the medium to long term.”
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer, speaking to broadcasters on Monday, said the government was “going down the wrong track”.
“The answer to this is to accept there are some problems in the way the protocol works but they could be resolved around the negotiating table – with statecraft, with guile, with trust,” Sir Keir said.
“Unfortunately we don’t have those in the current prime minister.”