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Boris Johnson has dismayed the EU by threatening to violate the Brexit divorce deal, as negotiations for a trade agreement come down to the wire.
The devolved administrations are also outraged by the UK Internal Market Bill tabled by the Government this week, accusing Westminster of trying to seize power.
Here the PA news agency examines the proposal and the furore it has provoked.
– Why all the commotion?
When the Brexit transition period ends on December 31, the UK Government and the devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will no longer be bound by EU law.
The Prime Minister signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the EU that paved the way for the UK’s formal departure and contained safety nets if the two sides could not broker a trade deal.
Mr Johnson loved to brag this Brexit divorce deal was “oven ready” during the election campaign, but now he effectively says the recipe was not up to scratch.
Downing Street says there are “ambiguities” and a “lack of clarity” in key areas of the arrangement, which it argues was “agreed at pace”.
So the Bill introduced in the Commons aims to allow goods and services to freely flow between the four nations.
And Mr Johnson argued it would be a “legal safety net” to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland against “extreme or irrational interpretations” of the Northern Ireland provisions which could lead to “a border down the Irish Sea”.
– Why is Brussels so miffed?
Senior EU figures are frankly outraged by the proposal, which Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted would break international law in a “specific and limited way”.
European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was “very concerned”, saying it would “undermine trust”, and called for Mr Johnson to honour his past commitments.
Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement. This would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations.
— Ursula von der Leyen (@vonderleyen) September 9, 2020
Irish Taoiseach Micheal Martin called Mr Johnson to tell him, in “forthright terms”, his concerns, including “the breach of an international treaty, the absence of bilateral engagement and the serious implications for Northern Ireland”.
And there are real worries that the proposal will derail the already deadlocked trade deal negotiations.
Commission vice president Maros Sefcovic is seeking clarity from Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove in an “extraordinary meeting” of the Joint Committee between the UK and EU in London.
– What is the Bill actually proposing?
No new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain to allow for “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK.
Powers for UK ministers to “disapply” rules relating to movement of goods in the absence of a trade deal, including any under the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The Government has presented the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill to Parliament today.
— UK House of Commons (@HouseofCommons) September 9, 2020
The ability to override previously accepted rules on government support for businesses, known as state aid.
It is pretty clear in stating that some of the measures should have effect “notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international” law.
– How do Tory MPs feel?
Some of the more hardline Brexit supporters have supported Mr Johnson’s move as necessary.
However, there is a threat from the European Research Group of Brexiteer MPs to force the Prime Minister to go even further over unfettered trade and state aid.
Others are appalled by the threat to flout international law, summed up in one newspaper’s front page headline as “Britannia waives the rules”.
Theresa May, Mr Johnson’s predecessor in No 10, was outraged, warning the Government was in danger of losing the trust of other countries that it would honour international commitments.
Any breach, or potential breach, of the international legal obligations we have entered into is unacceptable, regardless of whether it’s in a ‘specific’ or ‘limited way’.
Adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable. pic.twitter.com/VQhhA5w6lJ
— Sir Bob Neill MP (@neill_bob) September 8, 2020
Conservative former prime minister Sir John Major said Britain breaking its bond would risk losing “something beyond price that may never be regained”, a sentiment shared by many moderate Tories still sitting in the Commons.
Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood, who chairs the Commons defence committee, said: “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.”
– Wales and Scotland too?
Yes, pretty incensed. In the face of Downing Street’s suggestion that the Bill would give a “power surge” to the devolved administrations, they contend it is instead an attempt to seize control.
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “The Tories’ proposed bill for a so-called UK internal market is an abomination. It is a naked power grab which would cripple devolution.”
Her Welsh counterpart, Mark Drakeford, said the bill is a bid to “smash and grab” the devolution settlement.
– And the US as well?
Critics warn that the threat to ignore international law undermines Britain’s trustworthiness and jeopardises the ability to sign trade deals at a time when the ink needs to be flowing fast.
The Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland. If the U.K. violates its international agreements & Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress. https://t.co/n7E4GHTJcI
— Nancy Pelosi (@SpeakerPelosi) September 9, 2020
But there is a specific threat from the US because of its historic closeness to the Republic of Ireland.
Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, said there is “absolutely no chance” of a UK-US trade deal passing Congress if Britain violates an international treaty and undermines the Good Friday Agreement.
– What is next for the Bill?
It must pass both houses of Parliament to become law, which is fairly likely considering Mr Johnson’s vast majority.
But opponents will not let that happen without a fight.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said the threat to violate an international treaty is “wrong” and his spokesman said the party would be considering amendments to the Bill.
At the other end of the spectrum, the ERG could propose very different amendments.
Other than perhaps the threat to flout the law, much of the row could be neutralised by Mr Johnson fulfilling his commitment to get a free trade deal with the EU.
Clearer signals on the likelihood of that could come later on Thursday following the meeting between Mr Gove and Mr Sefcovic, and from both sides’ chief negotiators.