With the current coronavirus pandemic, news about Brexit has been taking a back seat in the last few months. However, talks and negotiation have been ongoing as we approach the official date of the ending of the UK’s ‘transition period’ on December 31st, 2020.
In a worrying move for many, reports emerged earlier this week about the British Prime Minister’s intentions to override the Brexit withdrawal agreement on Northern Ireland. This means that Ministers may introduce a bill that is inconsistent with part of the Brexit deal and could potentially break international law. Key parts of the Internal Market Bill may contradict the Withdrawal Agreement passed by Parliament last year as Ministers would be granted the power to determine rules on state aid and goods travelling between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The draft legislation effectively states that any contradictions derived from previous agreements would “cease to be recognized and available in domestic law.” It further contains a surprising list of precedents that the Internal Market Bill could override, noting that “any other legislation, convention or rule of international or domestic law whatsoever, including any order, judgement or decision of the European Court or of any other court or tribunal.”
This move poses serious threats to the undergoing talks with the EU which have been repeatedly undermined throughout the process. The EU Council President, Ursula von der Leyen, tweeted in condemnation that “[..] this would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations.” On a similar note, the President of the EU Council, Charles Michel, added that “breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship.” These concerns have been echoed by numerous British politicians, including former Prime Minister Theresa May who led the criticisms from Tory MPs. She asked the government how countries could be able to trust the UK “to abide by the legal obligations of the agreement it signs.”
The chaos created by the proposed Internal Market Bill comes in the midst of a crucial week for the negotiations between the UK and the EU. Brussels’ chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier was due to arrive in London to continue talks which are pressured by both sides’ deadline of mid-October. The two parties are struggling to agree on key issues such as fishing rights and government subsidies for businesses. As Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator David Frost repeatedly stated, the UK is seeking full control of its laws and national life and does not wish to be a “client state” which is why it will not compromise on what it considers to be fundamental points.
Given this firm stance on the British side, it is understandable why the debacle with the draft legislation on Northern Ireland only added fuel to the fire. Although this is likely the opposite of what he had hoped, Boris Johnson’s aggressive approach towards talks with the EU have put the UK in an even more vulnerable position. As claimed by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, chances of a Brexit deal stood at 30-40% now which should be considered an objectively frightful forecast for a top 7 economy because the EU has always been the UK’s biggest trading partner. Thus, the mistrust and overly nationalist approach that the British government has decided to adopt throughout the Brexit process has put a lot at stake for the country.
From the beginning of the Brexit campaign in early 2016 until now, more than 4 years later, British representatives have been exposed and mistrusted for their dishonesty and deception. One of their first contradiction was laid bare in the initial stages of the process, right after the referendum when the winner, Vote Leave, conceded one of their key declarations before the vote: not being bound by the formal exit procedure. This, in their view, would have given the UK more leverage in the negotiations. This line of thinking evidenced the Vote Leave’s commitment to populist discourses which, despite this first concession, has permeated the British approach since.
Since the referendum, British officials have attempted a series of unsuccessful stands, especially trying to reach out to national leaders individually to overhaul the EU’s legalistic approach with what they considered more diplomatic discussions on mutual interests. However, unlike the British front, the EU has managed to show a common stance on the issue which undoubtedly gave it more coherence and stability in approaching negotiations from the start. The only concession made by the EU in relation to the Irish border with the UK was made to support its member and make the process easier for all the people that were to get caught up in the matter.
The political tensions were not only limited to what was unfolding outside the UK. The Brexit referendum had left a country divided, broken, and unable to come together for one of the most important decisions in its recent history. This is not only because of the small margin for the win of the Vote Leave campaign, but maybe most importantly the deceptions and lies that had been told by its leaders, from Boris Johnson to Michael Gove. From the beginning, the campaign had relied on scapegoating and fearmongering, exploiting the most vulnerable groups in British society (i.e. migrants and benefits recipients) to make political points that often revealed themselves to be shams or promises that could not be possibly kept. Thus, it is hardly surprising to see the British Prime Minister breaching yet again another commitment with the Internal Market Bill. Though it is not only about the trust that future trade partners can have in the UK, this is also a very crucial point as the country prepares for the unknown in its post-Brexit reality. For these reasons, the British public should demand more integrity, transparency and accountability of its leaders regardless of whether or not they voted Leave.
Given that the result of the referendum has remained unchanged despite numerous calls for a second one, what is at stake goes beyond wanting to leave the EU or not. Boris Johnson and his government represent the UK, its people, and values. For someone to be able to have free rein on how they approach the rest of the world as leader of a country should be reprehensible. From the handling of the current coronavirus pandemic to the issue of Brexit, the British government has repeatedly failed its citizens and continues to do so despite criticisms even from the Conservative party itself.
Political turmoil after political turmoil, the credibility of the British government has been at increased risk since the 2016 referendum. However, this is not the time to lose complete faith in politics. The public’s scrutiny and interests in a fair Brexit and just society is a key factor that has the potential to influence decisions made by Number 10. So let us not indulge in individualism and self-pity for the troubles of the nation, but rather demand and expect more at every turn, every legislation, and every decision taken by our representatives. This is the fundamental notion of democracy.
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