By Michael Jarvis, London UK
Facing down a tidal wave of resistance, British prime Minister Boris Johnson is digging his heels and pushing ahead with what he calls the Internal Market Bill although his governments accepts that it violates international law.
The bill conflicts with the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union which Mr Johnson himself signed in January after four years of tough negotiations and internal political upheaval in the UK.
Brexit resulted from the UK referendum in 2016 when voters narrowly chose to leave the EU by a vote of 52% to 48%.
At the time of affixing his signature to the Withdrawal Agreement in January this year, the Prime Minister called it “a fantastic moment.”
But nine months on, there has been a change of mind with the UK government now accusing the EU of unfair negotiating tactics over a trade deal especially regarding the seemingly intractable and thorny issue of trade across the Irish border.
The surprising introduction of a new element in the form of the Internal Market Bill has caused a storm of controversy with all five former UK prime ministers, plus parliamentarians across the political spectrum questioning the government’s rationale for reneging on an international agreement.
Particularly concerning for them is the fact the agreement was just signed less than a year ago by Mr Johnson himself.
They argue it that risks damaging the UK’s international reputation, not only as a departure from the age-old belief that ‘an Englishman’s word is his bond’, but especially that the Prime Minister’s unexpected move violates the rule of law.
Much of the previous fall-out in the talks leading up to the Withdrawal Agreement was about the implications for trade border across the border between EU member the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK.
Introducing the new Internal Market Bill in parliament, Mr Johnson defended his stance.
“When we renegotiated our Withdrawal Agreement from the EU we struck a careful balance to reflect Northern Ireland’s integral place in our United Kingdom while preserving an open border with Ireland with the express and paramount aim of protecting the Belfast (Good Friday) agreement and the peace process.”
He added: “In good faith, we accepted certain obligations in the Northern Ireland Protocol in order to give our European friends the assurances they sought on the integrity of their single market while avoiding any change to the border on the island of Ireland.”
He now claims that the good faith is at risk due to negotiating tactics adopted by the EU, claiming that “Brussels was attempting to “blockade” goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and that they were refusing to “take this revolver off the table”.
“To take the most glaring example," the Prime Minister said, "the EU has said that if we fail to reach an agreement to their satisfaction they might very well refuse to list the UK’s food and agricultural products for sale anywhere in the EU.”
“And it gets even worse,” according to the prime minister, "because under the Protocol this creates an instant and automatic prohibition of the transfer of our animal products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland."
He accused the EU of “are holding out the possibility of blockading food and agricultural transports within our own country.”
“Absurd and self-defeating as that action would be even as we debate this matter, the EU still have not taken this revolver off the table,” Prime Minister Johnson added.
The government says the Internal Market Bill is a safeguard to fall back on if negotiations on a future trade deal break down.
Mr Johnson had previously said he was prepared to walk away from the talks without a deal - the no-deal Brexit scenario.
Despite two resignations and backbench outrage within the ruling Conservative party, the Internal Market Bill has nevertheless has cleared its first hurdle in the UK parliament with a majority vote to go through to the next stage of debate.
There are growing rumblings of discontent rippling through the government and the ruling Conservative Party reminiscent of the wave of rebellion that hit it in earlier phases of the Brexit process.
The bill returns to parliament next Tuesday when more acrimony in anticipated.
Meanwhile, the EU has warned of retaliatory action if the UK proceeds with the bill and applies it.
In the US, the developments between the UK and EU are being closely followed by the Congress.
Concerns have been expressed about the risks to the hard-fought Irish peace treaty, the Good Friday Agreement, with members of Congress saying they will block a US-UK trade deal if they feel the British government’s move jeopardises that treaty.
The COVID 19 vaccines have arrived. Will you take the Vaccine?