Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis angered Brussels officials and MPs by admitting a Government bill to be published today [Wednesday] will b
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis angered Brussels officials and MPs by admitting a Government bill to be published today [Wednesday] will breach the Withdrawal Agreement with the bloc “in a very specific and limited way”. EU sources claimed the move could have “huge consequences” for the increasingly bitter negotiations over a UK-EU trade deal.
MPs across the Commons including former prime minister Theresa May savaged the move last night.
But Whitehall officials insisted the changes were necessary to prevent “unforeseen” and “harmful” legal consequences when the UK quits the EU’s single market and customs union at the end of the year.
Furious exchanges erupted yesterday over the Internal Market Bill, due to be published by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy today.
It has been drafted to ensure goods can be freely transported without tariffs around the four parts of the UK after the end of the post-Brexit transition out of Brussels rules and regulations.
Speaking to MPs, Mr Lewis admitted part of the Bill will overwrite clauses in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen
“This does break international law in a very specific and limited way,” the Northern Ireland Secretary said.
The Bill would “disapply” part of the treaty with the EU agreed last October “in certain very tightly defined circumstances”, he told the Commons.
“There are clear precedents of this for the UK and, indeed, other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change,” the Northern Ireland Secretary added.
Mr Lewis made his admission in reply to a question from senior Tory backbencher Sir Bob Neill.
“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’,” Sir Bob, chairman of the Commons Justice Committee, later said on Twitter.
Mrs May made a rare Commons intervention to voice concerns about her successor’s actions on the issue.
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“The United Kingdom Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol. This Parliament voted that withdrawal agreement into UK legislation,” the former prime minister said.
“The Government are now changing the operation of that agreement. Given that, how can the Government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations in the agreements it signs?”
An EU diplomat said the move “would be a massive blow to the UK’s international reputation and have huge negative consequences on the current talks with the EU.”
The source added: “It would be in Britain’s best interest to clarify its plans now urgently and assure the EU that it will continue to honour its commitments under the Withdrawal Agreement under all circumstances.
“If the UK chose not to respect its international obligations, it would undermine its international standing.”
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French MEP Nathalie Loiseau, a former Europe minister in her country, said: “You don’t ‘break international law in a specific and limited way’. You do break it or you don’t.”
Labour’ shadow foreign secretary Lisa Nandy said she was “astounded” by the minister’s comments.
“The rule of law keeps us safe, defends our national interest, and allows us to hold others to account. They are diminishing us on the world stage,” she said.
Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer said: “What the Government is proposing is wrong, I think that’s plain for everybody to see.”
Lib Dem Northern Ireland Spokesperson Alistair Carmichael said: “The UK Government should focus on making laws, not breaking laws.”
But Whitehall insiders said the Internal Market Bill had been drafted to prevent any “accidental legal default” that could damage the Northern Ireland peace process.
One Whitehall source said: “The UK is completely committed to the international law system.”
The Internal Market Bill will transfer powers from the EU to the Government to invest in businesses and communities across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
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It will set up a new Office for the Internal Market (OIM) within the Competition and Markets Authority to monitor the smooth running of trade within the UK.
Businesses will be guaranteed unhindered trade across the four parts of the UK under the measure, due to come into force when the Brexit transition ends.
And from 1 January 2021, powers in a range policy areas previously held by Eurocrats will transfer to the devolved administrations in Holyrood, Cardiff Bay and Stormont for the first time.
Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: “For centuries the UK’s internal market has been the cornerstone of our shared prosperity, delivering unparalleled stability and economic growth across the Union.
“Today’s Bill will protect our highly integrated market by guaranteeing that companies can continue to trade unhindered in every part of the UK after the Transition Period ends and EU law falls away.
“By providing clarity over rules that will govern the UK economy after we take back control of our money and laws, we can increase investment and create new jobs across the United Kingdom, while maintaining our world-leading standards for consumers, workers, food and the environment.
“Without these necessary reforms, the way we trade goods and services between the home nations could be seriously impacted, harming the way we do business within our own borders. Now is not the time to create uncertainty for business with new barriers and additional costs that would trash our chances of an economic recovery.”