Brexit Back In Crisis As UK Threatens To Undercut Divorce Pact

United Kingdom and European Union trade talks returned to crisis, amid Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s threat to override the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement he previously signed unless a deal is reached by 15 October. Indicating impatience, his administration drafted the Internal Market Bill on Wednesday. It explicitly violates Brexit, particularly the Northern Ireland Protocol section of the deal. Despite promises to preserve E.U. customs and aid for Northern Ireland, the bill would empower U.K. ministers to modify export declaration forms on imports to Britain and interpret rules on financial support to businesses for its goods.

Britain deflected E.U. condemnation, insisting clarifications were needed to remove “ambiguity and ensure that the government is always able to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland.” Brexit supporters contended that obligations to notify Brussels of state business decisions inhibits sovereignty and export declarations incompatible with Northern Ireland’s “unfettered access” to the U.K. internal market. Failure to reach an agreement by the end of the Brexit transition period on 31 December threatens the Irish border, an issue with years of conflict. It will be the only U.K.-E.U. border, on which both concurred avoiding strict enforcement.

Following previous deadlines, by which he hoped for resolution, Johnson remarked, “if we can’t agree by then [15 October], then I do not see that there will be a free trade agreement between us, and we should accept that and move on.” Despite treaty violations, Johnson claims the bill is about “protecting jobs, protecting growth, ensuring the fluidity and safety of our U.K. internal market.” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic responded, decrying the bill “an extremely serious violation” of international law and demanded its withdrawal by the end of September. He discussed damaged trust, concluding that “[I]t is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust.”

Johnson’s fellow conservatives expressed concern, emphasizing Britain’s honor of treaties. Former Prime Minister Sir John Major remarked that Britain’s “signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct,” concluding that losing reputation for honoring promises is to have “lost something beyond price that can never be regained.” According to CNBC, United States house representative and speaker Nancy Pelosi warned “absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade” against Britain’s violation.

Johnson’s actions show concern amid delayed talks, and the E.U. should demonstrate urgency for a deal. However, he should have proposed the bill’s provisions before signing Brexit. Given E.U. counterparts’ indignation, his concerns will likely be dismissed. Despite violations, the main concern should be the Irish border. Johnson’s regime claims E.U. customs and checks in the Irish Sea threaten stability in Ireland similarly to a salient land border. No trade deal means no border arrangements, risking checks that may be viewed as enforcement, threatening a return to conflict. Given the border’s violent history, allowing U.K. ministers to manage regulations may be best for preventing instability. However, Johnson should respect that 56% of Northern Ireland voters opted to stay in the E.U. and the Scottish and Welsh governments’ preference to manage trade with common frameworks. In a new deal, the E.U. should allow the bill’s provisions, but prompt Britain’s negotiations with Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland to delineate trade within the internal market and with the E.U. This may deter Johnson’s continued violation, push him to promote sovereignty within U.K. states, and de-escalate tension.

Before Johnson’s reign, former Prime Minister Theresa May struggled for a Brexit deal. Careful to avoid infringement of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, she proposed the backstop. Without a long term trade pact, Britain would remain in the European Customs Union, and Northern Ireland bound by many of the single market’s rules. However, Britain would lose representation, which alarmed many in May’s conservative party, claiming it threatened British sovereignty. As a result, her efforts failed. She ultimately stepped down, transferring the Brexit challenge to the next prime minister. Johnson was elected by Members of Parliament, with hopes to secure a Brexit trade deal. In December, the conservative party gained additional seats in Parliament, indicating public desire to proceed with departing the E.U. 

Without a trade deal, Britain will adopt World Trade Organization regulations, which will impose heavy tariffs on goods, and compromise nearly US$1 trillion dollars in trade between the E.U. and Britain. While Johnson should not have breached his January agreement, the E.U. should compromise. Britain is among the world’s leading economies, and they should recall Britain’s concurrence in preventing a hard border. Although Johnson’s actions are not commendable, he is attempting to resolve a complex issue. Given its sensitivity and heightened tensions, the E.U. should not retaliate, regardless of alleged hypocrisy. Finally, Johnson should consider representation for the other U.K. states in trade, even if it means allowing Northern Ireland to maintain E.U. regulations, to avoid a hard border. Both parties must respect the issue’s sensitivity and work together accordingly.