The UK threatens to renounce parts of its Brexit deal with the European Union, potentially violating international law and overturning trade negotiations with the bloc.
On Wednesday, the UK government unveiled the UK Internal Market Bill, an anodyne-sounding piece of legislation that is anything but. The bill covers a specific part of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement, otherwise known as the Brexit Agreement, the same deal that Prime Minister Boris Johnson concluded with the European Union last October, which ultimately allowed the UK to leave the EU with an agreement on 31 January 2020.
When the UK separated from the EU, it entered a transition period where both sides would have to work out their future relationship on everything from trade to security. This is what has been happening ever since ̵
Enter the UK with a kind of curveball.
The UK’s internal market law would change some of the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, which covered one of the thorniest issues in the first round of negotiations on the Brexit deal. Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom, shares a border with Ireland, which is part of the EU. Keeping that border open to allow for the free flow of goods and people is central to the Good Friday Agreement, a 1998 peace agreement that sought to end decades of conflict in Northern Ireland through north-south cooperation. seamless.
The Northern Ireland Protocol was designed to protect these interests, regardless of what happened in the broader trade negotiations between the EU and the UK. But Johnson’s government has now decided it would like to make unilateral changes to a plan agreed less than a year ago, undermining the deal and already weak negotiations with the EU on any future relationship.
The Brexit deal is an international treaty, so if the UK were to pass this legislation, it would violate international law. And the British government has admitted that that’s exactly what it’s doing. “Yes, this violates international law in a very specific and limited way” Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis he told the House of Commons on Tuesday, in response to a question from a member of parliament.
Breaking international law, even in a “very specific and limited way”, is still, well, breaking international law. (The UK government’s lead lawyer has resigned in apparent protest.) Johnson has shown he is willing to push the boundaries of the law – extension of Parliament, for example – but this also appears to be a pressure tactic in negotiations, a attempt to shake stagnant talks with the EU.
But this move could backfire, derailing the UK’s negotiations with the EU and showing the UK isn’t serious about its commitments.
It also sets a troubling precedent beyond Brexit. Just as it is trying to make trade deals with the rest of the world, the UK may no longer be seen as a reliable or trustworthy partner. And if a democratic country that defends the rule of law can so easily trample a treaty when it doesn’t suit it, it will be much more difficult to prevent allies and adversaries from doing the same.
How did we get here
It took a while to get there and a lot of things happened along the way, but in the end, the EU and the UK agreed on a Brexit deal last year.
That deal, or withdrawal agreement, was essentially the Brexit divorce document – what the UK and the EU had to do to break. One of the big sticking points of that phase centered on the state of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
Hard Brexit advocates, including Johnson, opposed the initial plan (the “Irish backstop”), which considered how to keep the UK trapped within the EU institutions. Johnson was able to renegotiate the deal when he became prime minister last year.
Johnson’s deal would keep Northern Ireland closely aligned with many EU rules, including goods. This avoided any checks on the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But it also meant that some goods flowing between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be subject to controls, should they risk ending up in Ireland – and consequently, everywhere in the EU single market.
Many of the details of how this would work in practice still had to be implemented and a joint EU-UK committee would have to figure this out.
This is what the EU and the UK agreed in the Brexit deal, which both sides ratified. This allowed the UK to go on January 31, 2020, and start the second phase of Brexit: negotiating that future business relationship by December 31, 2020.
Those negotiations have not gone well at all and both sides are at odds on key issues, in particular state aid and fisheries. The latter is as much a symbolic as an economic issue, but state aid is really the heart of the problem.
The EU insists that if the UK wants duty-free access to its markets, it cannot seek to undermine the EU by subsidizing industries or businesses, or by lowering standards on things like the environment or jobs to try to give to British companies an increase.
But for the UK, which wanted Brexit so it could be a ruler rather than a ruler, following the EU rules is the opposite of what Brexit was supposed to provide. It is particularly anathema to the Brexiteers, who remain a vocal slice of Johnson’s Conservative Party. (The issue of state aid also intersects with that of Northern Ireland, as NI has to follow EU state aid rules.)
Throw in a pandemic, which consumed leaders’ attentions and complicated negotiations by relegating EU and UK diplomats to a videoconference meeting this spring, and the prospect of a UK-EU deal looked bleak.
A “no deal” scenario is still a possibility: all the catastrophically disruptive things that could have happened if the UK left the EU without a plan in place before Brexit could still happen – trade disruptions and entry point lockdowns , to name a few – if the EU and the UK get stuck. And unlike last time, December 31, 2020, the deadline is more difficult to evade, as it’s written in the withdrawal agreement itself – which, again, is an international treaty.
But the UK is now essentially saying, “Sure, it’s an international treaty, but so what?”
What the UK is proposing (the very, very short version)
EU-UK talks on their future relations resumed in London this one Tuesday. Johnson urged the EU to show “more realism” and set a deadline of October 15 to reach some sort of agreement. The EU, in turn, has told the UK that it needs to get real about its demands.
But just as things already looked bad, the UK broke the news that, in fact, they wanted to revisit the first Deal on Brexit and make some unilateral changes to that protocol on Northern Ireland. The text of the bill was presented on Wednesday.
The prime minister’s office defended it as an attempt to clarify “ambiguity” in the protocol in the event that talks between Brussels and London are disrupted. Surprisingly, Johnson said the pressure to quickly strike a deal left some issues open and the UK had to fill in the gaps.
“It has been agreed at the pace in the most challenging political circumstances possible to make a decision by the British people, with the clear overriding purpose of protecting Northern Ireland’s special circumstances,” Johnson’s spokesman said Wednesday. In 2019, however, Johnson said the deal was a “great new deal taking back control” and called it an “oven-ready deal.”
But this legislation is more than a few changes; it is quite clear that this is the UK doing what it wants. The legislation states that it “will take effect despite inconsistency or incompatibility with international law or other national laws”.
The legislation would affect state aid and also the flow of goods between the rest of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Here is an example that Colin Murray, a public law lecturer at Newcastle University, explained to me: The EU-UK Joint Committee should decide which goods flowing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland could be subject to tariffs if they are risks entering the EU single market.
But if they can’t agree, the default is the goods May to be at risk. So now the UK is saying, actually, no, we just have to decide – it doesn’t matter all that commission stuff.
The legislation proposed by the UK would simply violate the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. The Northern Ireland Protocol was the compromise plan to keep that border open on the island or in Ireland. But it always came with this warning that it would involve checking somewhere else. But Johnson has repeatedly downplayed the need for such controls, although he himself accepted them. And now it looks like an attempt to break free from that reality.
“The UK knew what it was signing up to,” Murray said. “Now, the government just doesn’t like what he signed.”
Perhaps backtracking this plane, the UK is reporting uncertainty about the state of Northern Ireland. Once again the dilemma arises: how can the EU single market be protected while avoiding the return of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland?
This was the very thing that the protocol agreed between the UK and the EU tried to solve. Now, the UK is confusing it, increasing fears that this move could undermine the Good Friday deal.
Neither the UK nor the EU, however, have arrived yet. The EU has warned the UK that it cannot break international law and could reportedly seek legal action if the UK moves forward with the legislation.
“This would violate international law and undermine trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relationships “, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter, using a Latin phrase meaning “the agreements must be kept”.
What does all this really mean?
The UK has introduced the text of this legislation to break its Brexit deal, but it hasn’t actually happened yet and would still require Parliament’s consent. Johnson has, thanks to last year’s elections, a very large majority in the House of Commons. But some conservatives, including our old friend Theresa May, fear that this legislation would undermine confidence in the UK.
Experts I spoke to to see some different dynamics driving this decision. One is Johnson himself, who used Brexit fury to rise to power and replace May as prime minister. He promised to “get Brexit done” and while he got an exit, that deal may not have been as “oven-ready” as advertised, the fine print a little less UK friendly than promised by Johnson. This is almost an attempt to confuse reality again.
Furthermore, future negotiations are not going well. That impasse makes the prospect of a no-deal exit more likely. So this could be Johnson’s attempt to see who might blink first, a kind of “macho risk politics,” as Murray put it.
Richard Whitman, a professor of political and international relations at the University of Kent, who spoke to me prior to the presentation of the bill text, told me that timing can be seen as a provocative move. The UK, in a sense, is warning the EU, said: “If we don’t make a deal between the two of us on the future relationship, then there are a lot of outstanding issues that are likely to be resolved. – in ways that them. we will bond rather than necessarily negotiate them with you to bond them. “
And for Johnson supporters who are skeptical of the EU and want the hardest possible break with the bloc, this may be the kind of leadership they want to see: someone who won’t be bullied by those EU bureaucrats. And if the EU and the UK make a deal, Johnson can help sell it as a victory – proof that his campaign of pressure against the EU has worked.
But this idea – that if the UK is hard on the EU, it will fall – may not be realistic. It could have the opposite effect and blow Brexit negotiations for good.
It’s pretty simple: why would the EU want to continue negotiating with the UK if they know the UK will be disavowing the very things they negotiated just last year? Why should the EU make compromises and concessions if the UK turns around and does what it wants?
The implications extend even beyond Brexit: why would anyone want to strike a trade deal, or any deal, if the UK is not a reliable partner?
“Internationally, this potentially sets a bad precedent for future trade deals and risks damaging the UK’s reputation,” Chris Stafford, a PhD researcher at the School of Politics and International Relations, told me in an email. Nottingham University. “International trade agreements take a lot of time and effort to negotiate, so some countries may be reluctant to do so if the UK shows that it is willing to ignore such agreements when it suits them.”
This is particularly relevant with the US, which is in talks with the UK for a trade deal. Congressmen, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have said they would not approve any US-UK trade deal if the UK violates the law and threatens the Good Friday deal. The foreign policy of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden adviser he also reiterated the candidate’s commitment to the peace process in Northern Ireland on Twitter, which links to a New York Times story about Johnson’s attempts to get out of the Brexit deal.
All in all, the UK bill could make the prospect of a no-deal more likely, not less. It would be bad for all parties, but particularly for the UK. It could cause serious economic upheaval at the same time as the country and the world are trying to recover from the economic catastrophe caused by Covid-19.
But strangely enough, the economic crisis caused by the pandemic could actually help Johnson and his allies by providing cover for any economic fallout from the Brexit debacle. If the UK public is focused on the pandemic and its aftermath, it may no longer pay attention to Brexit. There will be economic disruptions, but economic disruptions already. As Murray said, the UK government can file everything under Covid-19, diverting blame for a problem of its own making.
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