Though Britain officially exited the EU on January 31, Brexit has proven itself far from over after the country derailed trade talks last Tuesday when it explicitly stated it could choose to ignore parts of the Withdrawal Treaty signed with the EU only months ago, albeit “in a limited way”.
The UK has thus far remained in the EU’s single market under an agreement that is set to expire this December. Failure to agree on new trade deals by the October deadline will lead to a “hard Brexit”, resulting in harsh adjustments as trade barriers slam down. Proposals call for border-free trade in Ireland, with the EU arguing that this requires checks on goods passing between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain in some cases. However, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has ruled out requiring export declarations or tariffs on those goods.
Ignoring EU threats to drop the trade bill entirely along with the rapid decline in value of the British pound sterling in the face of a no-deal exit, Britain’s proposed Internal Market Bill spells out that certain provisions of the Withdrawal Treaty are “to have effect notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law”. If approved in Parliament, the bill would allow ministers to ignore parts of the deal inked with the EU, in turn modifying the form of export declarations and other exit procedures. This would also permit the UK to flout other provisions in the Agreement or in EU and international laws.
EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen wrote on Twitter that she was “very concerned” and noted that pacta sunt servanda – agreements which must be kept – is the cornerstone for international law. Violating it threatens chaos well beyond a ruined trade deal.
Johnson insists the bill is a “legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations” of the Withdrawal Agreement’s Northern Ireland protocol that could, in theory, threaten Britain’s hard-won peace in the province, which was secured by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Not everyone agrees, and Irish Deputy to the Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called the bill a kamikaze threat that has backfired.
UK negotiator David Frost had much harsher words for the EU. “We are not going to be a client state. We are not going to compromise on the fundamentals of having control over our own laws,” said Frost. “We are not going to accept level playing field provisions that lock us in to the way the EU do things…That’s what being an independent country is about, that’s what the British people voted for and that’s what will happen at the end of the year, come what may.”
British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab pointed out that in addition to the border with Northern Ireland, state aid and fisheries were the biggest sticking points in holding up the trade deal. He noted that UK fisheries had been “pretty much decimated” as a result of EU membership, and accused the European Union of wanting to keep British access to its waters “permanently low”.
State aid, however, is trickier to parse, as the EU is wary that a post-Brexit UK could become a deregulated free-market competitor via selective use of state aid.
John Major, a former Conservative prime minister, said that “if we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained.” The bill was published on the day the EU’s chief negotiator arrived in London for the latest round of trade talks, which led some to speculate that Johnson sought to goad the EU into storming out of the trade negotiations or otherwise achieve a last-minute trade off.
Trust between the EU and the UK is at a nadir, and Europe is considering taking legal action over the proposed law-breaking. Demanding emergency talks, the continent also desires specifics as to what the UK actually wants, since making up its own rules is a non-starter. British officials have said they would be happy with an Australia-style agreement, which is to say no real deal at all – an increasingly likely scenario. Australia relies on WTO terms to trade with the EU but is in the midst of negotiating their own free trade deal with the bloc.
“A disorderly Brexit would not be good for Europe,” German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz told Reuters, but “it would be a real disaster for Britain and its citizens.” Without a free-trade deal, Britain faces potential shortages of goods, medicines, and other supplies, complicating an already difficult road towards full economic recovery due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.