LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Boris Johnson is pushing ahead with legislation that will deliberately breach the European Union exit treaty signed in January, despite warnings that it could wreck trade deals with the EU and the United States.
The success or failure of last-gasp Brexit talks in coming days will determine whether Johnson has to face those consequences, or if the most troublesome parts of the bill can be quietly abandoned.
The Internal Market Bill is aimed at ensuring the United Kingdom’s four nations can trade freely with one another after leaving the EU.
But the government says that requires creating powers to override part of the Withdrawal Treaty – a breach of international law it says is necessary to create a safety net that protects Northern Ireland if Brexit talks fail.
The part of the legislation that creates these powers was stripped from the bill by parliament’s upper chamber on Nov. 9.
Now, Johnson is planning to add those bits back in again early next month when the bill is returned to the lower chamber, where he has a majority.
That tees up a stand-off between the elected House of Commons and the unelected House of Lords.
Typically, if Johnson can hold his majority together, the House of Commons wins out in such circumstances, although there is no certainty about how long that might take.
Breaking an international treaty only months after it was signed is seen as damaging to Britain’s reputation by key allies.
Joe Biden’s U.S. presidential election win has raised the stakes. Before his election he warned that he would not sign a trade deal if Britain did anything to undermine the peace deal in Northern Ireland – something critics say the bill will do.
The EU has launched legal action against Britain over the legislation, and Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney says there is unanimity among member states and the EU commission that no trade deal should be signed if the bill is passed.
WHY IS THE GOVERNMENT PRESSING AHEAD?
The government says it needs a safety net to prevent the EU interpreting the complex customs agreements between Ireland and Northern Ireland in a way that limits trade.
The EU wants to make sure the open border with Ireland doesn’t act as a back door into the bloc for goods. London wants to make sure goods flow freely between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
Ministers say that a deal on future relations with the EU would likely mean the most controversial parts of the bill would not be needed. Those talks have little time left to run, and disagreements remain.
If the talks end without a deal, Johnson will have to weigh the negative effects on relations with its two main trading partners against what it sees as a threat to Northern Ireland and the political cost of backing down.
(Reporting by William James; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Alex Richardson)
Copyright 2020 Thomson Reuters.
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