Michael Gove has insisted the government is being “generous” with the EU over Brexit negotiations.
The cabinet minister said the UK was trying to protect the single market – but warned the EU could not threaten “the integrity of the United Kingdom”.
His comments came after Prime Minister Boris Johnson urged Tory MPs to back his plan to override part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.
The EU has said the UK could face legal action over its Internal Market Bill.
The Internal Market Bill, which will be formally debated in the House of Commons for the first time on Monday, addresses the Northern Ireland Protocol – the part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement designed to prevent a hard border returning to the island of Ireland.
If it became law it would give UK ministers powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland that will come into force from 1 January, if the UK and EU are unable to strike a trade deal.
Mr Gove said: “These steps are a safety net, they’re a long-stop in the event, which I don’t believe will come about but we do need to be ready for, that the EU follow through on what some have said they might do which is in effect to separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.”
While admitting it was a “crunch moment”, he insisted “we have got the support of our own MPs”.
No more ‘miserable squabbling’
The two sides have less than five weeks to agree a deal before Mr Johnson’s 15 October deadline – after which he says he is prepared to “walk away”.
Informal talks are due to resume on Monday, with the next official round of talks – the ninth since March – starting in Brussels on 28 September.
The EU says the planned changes must be scrapped or they risk jeopardising the UK-EU trade talks.
But the government has rejected this demand, arguing the measures in the bill are needed to protect the integrity of the UK and the peace process in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has admitted parts of the bill, which would go against the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the UK and EU, would “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
On Friday Mr Johnson had a Zoom call with about 250 of his MPs, in which he said the party could not return to “miserable squabbling” over Europe. It comes amid a plan to amend the legislation from senior Conservatives who are angered that international law could be broken by overriding the Withdrawal Agreement signed by the prime minister last October.
Both Ireland and the EU have warned that Mr Johnson’s plans pose a serious risk to the peace process rather than protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
Mr Johnson said there was still a “very good chance” of the UK and EU striking a deal by mid-October similar to that previously agreed between the EU and Canada – which got rid of most, but not all, tariffs on goods.
But in a column in the Daily Telegraph, he defended the government’s plans to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement.
He accused the EU of adopting an “extreme” interpretation of the Northern Ireland Protocol to impose “a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea” that could stop the transport of food from Britain to Northern Ireland.
Mr Gove told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme it would be “irrational” not to allow the transportation of food in such a way, which would happen if the UK was not granted third-country listing. Such a listing is needed for the export of food.
Conservative backbencher Sir Bob Neill, who chairs the Commons Justice Committee, is tabling an amendment to the bill to try to force a separate parliamentary vote on any changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“I believe it is potentially a harmful act for this country, it would damage our reputation and I think it will make it harder to strike trade deals going forward,” he said.