Brexit treaty-busting powers would be last resort, says UK minister

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LONDON (Reuters) - Britain hopes never to need to use proposed powers to break its Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union, Northern Ireland Office minister Robin Walker said on Monday as the government pressed ahead with legislation to create such powers.

The British government is attempting to pass a bill that would give it the ability to break international law, citing a need to protect trade with Northern Ireland if attempts to negotiate a settlement with the EU prove unsuccessful.

The proposal has enraged Brussels, which has demanded the plan be withdrawn, and has thrown talks on a future relationship with the bloc into chaos.

But Walker said the most contentious parts of the Internal Market Bill were a vital safety net and assured British lawmakers that the powers would be used only if absolutely necessary.

“We would not take these steps lightly. We would hope it will never be necessary to use these powers and we would only do so if, in our view, the EU was engaged in a material breach of its duties of good faith or other obligations,” Walker told parliament.

The bill is expected to pass through the lower chamber of parliament next week thanks to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s large majority there.

Nevertheless, it was subject to fierce criticism from former prime minister Theresa May, a member of Johnson’s Conservative Party, who said it undermined peace in Northern Ireland and threatened the integrity of the United Kingdom.

“This will lead to untold damage to the United Kingdom’s reputation,” May said during the debate. “It puts the future of the United Kingdom at risk and as a result, with regrets, I have to tell the minister I cannot support this bill.”

Another Conservative lawmaker earlier confirmed that the government had snuffed out a wider rebellion by agreeing to give parliament a vote on whether to use the new powers.

Reporting by William James; Editing by David Goodman