Britain has plunged Brexit trade talks into crisis by publishing a bill that explicitly acknowledges the Government could break international law by ignoring some parts of the divorce treaty it has signed with the European Union.
- The Internal Markets Bill would override British promises made to the EU
- Boris Johnson says it is necessary to protect Northern Ireland
- Critics of the bill say it fast-tracks the breakup of the UK
Brushing aside warnings from Brussels that breaching the treaty would prevent any trade deal being struck, London said in the proposed legislation that it would ignore parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, which was only signed in January.
Under the Internal Markets Bill, certain provisions are “to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law”.
Whitehall has said international law would be broken “in a very specific and limited way”, but the EU has made its anger plain.
“Very concerned about announcements from the British Government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement,” Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission said on Twitter.
The Latin phrase, meaning “agreements must be kept”, is a basic principle of international law.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Westminster the bill was “a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations” of the Northern Ireland protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement that could threaten peace in the UK territory that borders the EU.
The bill, if approved, would give ministers the power to ignore parts of the protocol by modifying the form of export declarations and other exit procedures.
It will debated in both chambers of parliament and requires their approval before becoming law.
Bill risks UK breakup, critics say
Britain left the EU in January but has remained part of its single economic market, largely free of trade barriers, under a status quo agreement that expires in December.
It has been negotiating a trade deal to take effect from January 1, but says it is willing to walk away if it cannot agree favourable terms.
The British pound, which tends to rise with the perceived likelihood of a negotiated trade deal with the EU, was down around 0.4 per cent after details of the bill emerged.
Irish Prime Minister Micheal Martin said he would speak to Mr Johnson to express “very strong concerns” about the plans while his deputy Leo Varadkar called it a “kamikaze” threat that had backfired.
Asked how he could expect Britons to obey the law if his Government was willing to undermine it, Mr Johnson said: “We expect everybody in this country to obey the law.”
Senior members of Mr Johnson’s Conservative Party have already voiced anger that Britain might consider such a move.
First Ministers from Scotland and Wales both criticised the bill as it would remove devolved powers granted to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Since the late 1990s, the three constituent nations have enjoyed partial political autonomy from Westminster — a process known as devolution — which has granted them legislative powers over healthcare, education, and culture, among others.
Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford told Sky News the bill “provides ammunition to those people who would favour the breakup of the United Kingdom”, while Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told ITV it was a “full frontal assault on devolution”.
Their criticism has been echoed by a number of their counterparts in Westminster.
“The Prime Minister and his friends … are creating a rogue state, one where the rule of law does not apply,” Ian Blackford, leader of the pro-independence Scottish National Party, told the Westminster parliament.