(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.”