Highly controversial legislation proposed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government would backtrack on an agreement spelling out the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union.
(CN) — “I would say to my honorable friend that, yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
With these words, the United Kingdom was plunged back into its Brexit dilemma – many call it a nightmare. Suddenly, the Brexit dramas from a year ago have thundered back into public discourse: There’s talk of a dangerous no-deal exit from the European Union, of the Good Friday Agreement unraveling in Northern Ireland and of the U.K. needing to take back control of its sovereignty.
Those words about breaking international law were uttered last Wednesday by Brandon Lewis, the U.K. government’s Northern Ireland secretary, in a near-empty House of Commons. Britain’s raucous Parliament is now eerily quiet due to restrictions on public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Lewis was standing at the despatch box in the House of Commons to defend an explosive piece of legislation British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative government submitted that has the effect of bypassing an agreement the U.K. and the EU brokered at the end of last year to spell out the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European political and economic bloc.
The new legislation, the U.K. Internal Market Bill, seeks to override key provisions in that deal over the future of Northern Ireland. Under the withdrawal deal with the EU, Johnson agreed to keep Northern Ireland aligned to EU rules and regulations, an arrangement seen as critical to keeping an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, an EU member. All sides want to avoid a return of border controls at the Irish border to prevent reigniting sectarian violence.
In a stunning – many say duplicitous – reversal, Johnson now claims the protocol over Northern Ireland can be annulled and that the U.K. cannot be bound by the deal. He says the new legislation “clarifies” the U.K.’s position.
His stance has opened up a ferocious legal debate about the limits and boundaries of international laws and Parliament’s sovereignty. These debates have served as a backdrop to the U.K.’s agonies over Brexit, with Brexiteers saying the U.K. ceded too much control to the EU and the anti-Brexit faction saying the U.K. benefits from being part of the transnational bloc.
At the time when he negotiated the agreement, Johnson called the deal “oven ready” and he touted it as a “great deal” during a successful election last December which gave him a wide majority in the House of Commons and ended the hopes of those seeking to stop Brexit.
Now, evoking hardline pro-Brexit language, the Tory prime minister says the deal his government agreed to threatens to “carve up” the U.K. He even stated that the deal, if enacted, would threaten peace in Northern Ireland.
“Our negotiators believe that there may be a serious misunderstanding about the terms of the withdrawal agreement,” Johnson said on Saturday in a piece for the Daily Telegraph newspaper.
He charged that the EU was seeking to “use an extreme interpretation” of the deal “to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea.” He then alleged the EU might “actually stop the transport of food products” from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.
“I have to say that we never seriously believed that the EU would be willing to use a treaty, negotiated in good faith, to blockade one part of the U.K., to cut it off, or that they would actually threaten to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the U.K.,” Johnson said.
“A blockade constitutes an act of war,” said Wolfgang Munchau, a German political analyst and columnist who runs Eurointelligence, a political analysis firm. In a briefing note, he said Johnson’s accusation against the EU “is probably the biggest verbal escalation in the Brexit wars we have seen to date.”
Johnson – a maverick politician routinely accused of dishonesty and no stranger to controversy – is once again at the center of a political storm. Asserting the U.K. is not bound by an international treaty it signed violates the Vienna Convention and tarnishes the U.K.’s reputation as a standard bearer of the rule of law, his critics contend.
His brazen maneuver has thrown into chaos negotiations between the U.K. and EU to smooth the divorce by signing a wide-ranging free trade deal before Jan. 1, the date the U.K. is set to entirely leave the EU following a transition period.
On Monday night, the House of Commons voted to allow the Internal Market Bill to proceed onto a committee phase. Monday’s vote opens up a week of legislative drama with the House scheduled to hold a critical vote on the bill next Tuesday.
Political analysts think Johnson has a good chance of getting the legislation passed despite the furor and backlash it has caused.
All five living former prime ministers have come out against the bill, arguing that it would damage the U.K.’s reputation as a paragon of the rule of law and jeopardize the fragile peace in Northern Ireland.
“What is being proposed now is shocking,” said John Major and Tony Blair, respectively former Tory and Labour prime ministers, in a piece in The Times. “How can it be compatible with the codes of conduct that bind ministers, law officers and civil servants deliberately to break treaty obligations? As we negotiate new trade treaties, how do we salvage credibility as ‘global Britain’ if we so blatantly disregard our commitments the moment we sign them?”
They also said it was untrue that Johnson’s bill would “save the Good Friday agreement.”
“We disagree,” the former prime ministers said. “The government’s action does not protect the Good Friday agreement – it imperils it.”
They argued that the bill would take away “the predictability, political stability and legal clarity” that are essential to maintain “the delicate balance between the north and south of Ireland that is at the core of the peace process.”
Also, a group of members within Johnson’s Tory party are railing against the legislation, saying they are aghast at the government’s blatant breach of an international treaty. Opposition parties are calling Johnson the leader of a “rogue state.”
Naturally, the EU is livid and its leaders are calling Johnson untrustworthy. Unless the Internal Market Bill is withdrawn, the EU is threatening to take legal action against the U.K. Regardless, Johnson’s move to torpedo the withdrawal agreement is seen as damaging the prospect for a trade agreement even though both sides say they want one to avoid economic disruptions and damage. The U.K. and EU are major trading partners.
“This is not the Britain I thought I knew,” said Dacian Ciolos, the head of Renew Europe, a group of liberal members of the European Parliament, in blasting the legislation, which he said was illegal and must be withdrawn before any trade deal can be done with the EU.
Getting a trade deal done has proven very complicated, not least because the U.K. and EU have such divergent interests.
The U.K. wants to boost its domestic industries with robust state aid, sign new free trade agreements around the globe without being bound by EU rules and become a competitor to the EU. In contrast, the EU wants to make sure the U.K. doesn’t wind up benefiting from close relations with the EU while also undermining the bloc’s single market and unfairly outcompeting EU companies. There are also concerns in the EU about the U.K. seeking to weaken standards on things like food products, digital services and the environment.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.