Ahead of a crucial round of talks between London and Brussels over the future trading relationship between the UK and the European Union, Boris Johnson is facing a backlash from the EU, US and from within his own ruling Conservative Party after the U.K. government said it plans to break international law over Brexit by overriding parts of the Withdrawal Agreement that secured the UK's exit from the EU in January.
The controversy was sparked by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, who said on Tuesday that the government’s plan to re-write parts of the Brexit divorce deal it signed with the EU would be a breach of international law in a “limited and specific way.”
The Internal Market Bill will set out how powers currently held by the EU will be shared out after the post-Brexit transition period ends. In the bill, published on Wednesday, the U.K. plans to revoke its commitment to keep Northern Ireland aligned with EU customs rules. The effect is to resurrect the risk of a hard border returning to Northern Ireland, with all the risks that entails to the peace process.
Ministers say it is needed to prevent "damaging" tariffs on goods travelling from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland if negotiations with the EU on a free trade agreement fail.
But the admission has prompted the resignation of a top civil servant and caused fury among influential Tory lawmakers who believe the abandonment of a legally-binding treaty would hurt future attempts to secure international agreements, a particularly urgent task as the U.K. economy is in its deepest recession for 100 years.
“How can the government reassure future international partners that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked in Parliament.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said the UK would "lose the moral high ground" if the government went through with the changes. “This is about the rule of law and our resolve and commitment to uphold it,” he told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme. “To unilaterally ignore any treaty in its obligations which we’ve signed and submitted to the United Nations would actually go against everything we believe in.”
The former Conservative chancellor Philip Hammond and the ex-justice secretary David Gauke added their voices to growing opposition to the draft legislation.
Gauke said the government would be “taking the most extraordinary risk” if it sought to unilaterally change the protocol. “Any attempt to backslide from the commitments made in the Northern Ireland protocol would be seen as an act of bad faith by the EU and the wider world,” he said. “It would undermine trust and likely result not just in no deal, but an acrimonious no deal.”
Hammond tweeted that the government should avoid an “incredibly dangerous step” that he claimed would “hugely damage our standing on the world stage”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock insisted the changes were necessary to protect the Northern Ireland peace process if the UK failed to get a free trade deal with the EU. "The decision we've made is to put the peace process first, first and foremost as our absolute top international obligation," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
A former Cabinet minister, involved in putting together the Withdrawal Agreement, reacted furiously to Hancock's claim. The former minister, who did not want to be named, told the BBC: "I cannot allow anyone to get away with saying the government is doing this to protect the peace process. This does the precise opposite. "It is about the internal market in the UK and is more likely to lead to a hard border [between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland] which will imperil the peace process."
Some commentators suggest the threat is merely a negotiating tactic -- designed to put pressure on the EU ahead of the final stage of trade talks to back down on trade terms for fishing rights and state aid. But Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair's spokesman, press secretary and director of communications and strategy Allaister Cambell wrote in an article titled “ Boris Johnson is Destroying Britain’s Reputation” that the Prime Minister’s tactic could have implications beyond Britian’s messy Exit by raising raising questions about whether the UK can be trusted at a time when the county is trying to carve out a new role on the global stage.
“It signals to the world that Johnsons’s word, even in a legal deal, cannot be trusted” at a time when future economic success depends on trade deals stuck with other countries and regions, he wrote. “With Johnson, we risk developing the reputation of a dishonest breaker of our word, and of laws agreed between nations. That is one sure fire way of seeing a country’s hard-won reputation fall apart very quickly,” he added.
The Scottish government, meanwhile, has said it will not consent to a change in the law along these lines, arguing that it would undermines devolution. The bill has also been attacked by the Welsh Brexit minister, Labour's Jeremy Miles, who accused the government of "stealing powers from devolved administrations". "This bill is an attack on democracy and an affront to the people of Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland," he added.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson greets European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in central London on January 8, 2020, ahead of their meeting. (Getty)
EU WARNS OF NO DEAL
Some observers in Brussels fear that talks could collapse if the British government follows through on its announcement that it intends to break international law by overriding parts of the agreement, which it negotiated and adopted in parliament in late 2019.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen “has threatened to not do business with Britain if ‘trust’ is broken by the UK reneging on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement”, The Telegraph reports.
Meanwhile, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told French radio said that honouring the treaty was “a precondition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected”.
A source told Euronews: "The UK is trying to create chaos with the aim of getting a better deal than if they played ball. But they shouldn’t be messing about with Northern Ireland for tactics."
The row over plans that could undermine the legal force of parts of the protocol on Northern Ireland came as leaked cables seen by the Guardian reveal the growing suspicion in Brussels of Britain’s motivations and strategy, said by sources to have been further damaged by the latest developments.
“A MAJOR IMPEDIMENT TO A CLOSE UK-US RELATIONSHIP”
Senior Democrats in the US have warned Johnson that reneging on the treaty could “hobble bilateral relations” should Joe Biden win the presidency in November, The Guardian reports. The Irish-American presidential candidate is a staunch defender of the Good Friday Agreement, which Downing Street says Johnson is seeking to preserve through “limited clarifications” to the withdrawal agreement.
“As the U.K. and EU work out their relationship, any arrangements must protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the return of a hard border,” tweeted Antony Blinken, a senior foreign policy adviser for the Biden campaign, noting “Joe Biden is committed to preserving the hard-earned peace & stability in Northern Ireland.”
The Guardian reports that “people close to” Biden have warned that anything that puts the 1998 peace deal at risk “would present a major impediment to a close relationship between London and Washington in the event of a Biden presidency”.
Democrat Richard Neal, chairman of the House of Representatives ways and means committee urged “both sides to uphold the terms of this joint agreement, particularly with respect to the treatment of Northern Ireland, in accordance with international law” in a statement.
Neal - who as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee would have influence over the ratification of any trade deal - was also quick to fire a warning shot. “The UK’s departure from the EU at the end of this year and any U.S.-UK trade agreement must preserve the Good Friday Agreement, which has maintained peace and prosperity for British and European peoples since 1998.”
Even if Donald Trump wins a second term, bipartisan support for the Good Friday Agreement in Congress would probably severely hurt any UK hopes of negotiating a quick free trade deal after Brexit.
“The Good Friday Agreement and the broader peace process must be protected if the UK has any hope of obtaining congressional support for a potential US-UK free trade agreement,” Eliot Engel, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, said.
“While I deeply value the US-UK relationship, it’s outrageous that Prime Minister Johnson is reportedly considering overriding critical parts of the withdrawal agreement that give Northern Ireland special customs considerations,” Engel said in a statement.
Kim Darroch, former UK ambassador to Washington, said: “You could have a free trade deal, it could even be negotiated by a Republican president and get blocked in the House of Representatives.”
Darroch told BBC Newsnight he “wasn’t surprised to see a government lawyer resign because we stick by international agreements. It is one of the things we stand for.”
Johnson’s decision could also weaken Britain’s hand when it comes to holding foreign powers accountable for their own wrongdoing. New Statesman international editor Jeremy Cliffe tweeted that the “specific but limited” law-breaking could increase the likelihood to future scenarios in which current US leader Donald Trump suggests “NHS protections in trade deal never made sense”, or with China arguing that “‘One country, two systems’ never made sense”.