Storm as UK violates EU treaty with proposed law
Britain readied on Wednesday to intentionally breach its EU divorce treaty with new legislation that critics warned would undermine its global standing and any hopes for an orderly exit out of the world’s biggest single market.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was to submit a new bill governing the UK’s own internal market across its devolved nations, to take effect after the expiry of a transition period out of European Union membership in December.
The government maintains the changes are needed to smooth post-Brexit trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and help power a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic.
But Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis has conceded they do “break international law in a very specific and limited way”, in an extraordinary admission that provoked incredulity across the political spectrum in Britain, Brussels and beyond.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon vowed to fight the bill, branding it a “full frontal assault on devolution”.
Health Secretary Matt Hancock said he was “comfortable” with Britain breaking obligations under its EU Withdrawal Agreement, having only belatedly apparently discovered problems with the treaty’s provisions for Northern Ireland.
“The primary international obligation around this issue is to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland and I very much hope we conclude a deal before the end of the transition period,” he told Times Radio.
‘Moral high ground’
Critics accused the British government of engaging in bad-faith diversionary tactics as it battles Brussels on key issues such as state subsidies and fishing rights.
Jonathan Jones, the head of the government’s legal department, resigned on Tuesday, reportedly because he refused to endorse the new bill.
Tobias Ellwood, Johnson’s Conservative colleague who chairs the House of Commons defence committee, told BBC radio that breaching the Brexit treaty meant Britain would “lose the moral high ground”.
“How can we look at countries such as China in the eye and complain about them breaching international obligations over Hong Kong, or indeed Russia over ballistic missiles, or indeed Iran over the nuclear deal, if we go down this road?” he said.
The internal market bill comes as British and EU negotiators are engaged in fraught talks to agree a new trading relationship by a crunch EU summit in mid-October and in time for its implementation from January 1 next year.
“Any attempts by the UK to undermine the (withdrawal) agreement would have serious consequences,” European Parliament president David Sassoli warned.
Prime minister Micheal Martin of Ireland, the EU member with most to lose from a chaotic Brexit, vowed to speak to Johnson to register “very strong concerns about this latest development”.
Martin’s deputy Leo Varadkar said Lewis’s language amounted to a “kamikaze” threat by Britain, but had “backfired”, given the scale of angry reactions in Northern Ireland, the EU and also among Democratic politicians in the United States.
“I think governments are scratching their heads around the world wondering whether they should ever enter into treaties or contracts with the British government if this is their attitude,” he told RTE radio.