In recent weeks, there has been controversy over UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s alleged breaking of international law through proposing new legislation called the Internal Market Bill.
What is the Internal Market Bill?
The Bill was published on 9th September 2020, and was created to allow ‘goods and services to flow freely across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland when the UK leaves the EU's single market and customs union.’ The Bill sets out how trade will be between different countries within the UK after the UK leaves the EU single market and to make sure that there are no barriers when the ‘Brexit transition period ends on 31 December 2020.’ The Internal Market Bill aims to allow the market between the four nations to remain linked and to not be limited by restrictions from the individual devolved governments. The Bill is to replace the EU overseeing the UK’s trade policies and to put in place common rules which would apply across the UK.
The Bill highlights ‘mutual recognition and non-discrimination’. Mutual recognition allows goods and services to be sold or used around any parts of the UK, with the exceptions of Northern Ireland shown in the protocol. The non-discrimination aspect of the bill is to make sure that the four nations do not introduce new regulations which will favour one part of the UK compared to another.
A crucial part of the Bill is where Northern Ireland Protocol is mentioned. This is because it prevents a hard border on Ireland if there is a no-deal Brexit. The issue from this is the uncertainty over how the trade barriers will be applied, as Northern Ireland shares a border with the Republic of Ireland who have chosen not to leave the EU. This would mean that Northern Ireland would be obliged to continue following EU rules to allow the movement of goods freely to the Republic of Ireland.
Why is the Bill controversial?
The Bill is controversial because it overrides parts of the Withdrawal Agreement. Furthermore, it is controversial because it gives ministers a lot of flexibility and power over finances.
How is Boris Johnson breaking international law?
The Bill breaks international law by going against the Withdrawal Agreement, because it allows ministers to have the ability to not apply the rules agreed on the movement of goods. The Bill also allows ministers to give financial assistance freely, and this potentially can override the state aid rules in the Withdrawal Agreement. The significant aspect of the Bill which many believe causes Boris Johnson to break international law is that this Bill permits the government to change and overrule aspects of the EU Withdrawal Agreement. Specifically overriding Article 4 which has precedence over UK domestic law.
Boris Johnson’s justification is that these measures are needed because the European Union was trying to use the Northern Ireland Protocol to ban the sale of UK agri-food products. Thus, preventing a free movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. Boris Johnson wanted to enforce the Internal Market Bill to prevent the EU from interpreting the Brexit withdrawal treaty, and alongside this the Northern Ireland protocol in an ‘extreme way’ causing a hard difficult border with the rest of the UK. The Bill would also limit the EU’s powers to determine state aid for companies, businesses, and custom arrangements in Northern Ireland.
Why does Boris Johnson believe he is not breaking international law?
Boris Johnson believes he is not breaking international law because he believes that the Bill is needed to make sure that the UK has ‘economic and political integrity’. It is also needed to prevent the EU from making unrealistic demands over trade discussions, such as the EU threatening to stop food exports. He stated that the Bill is needed to make sure the borders of the UK are not controlled by foreign powers or an international organisation.
Opinions of those who support Boris Johnson
Many MPs do not believe that Boris Johnson is allegedly breaking international law, because most MPs supported the Internal Market Bill ‘by 340 votes to 263’. This is because they believe that this Bill will act as ‘vital safeguards’ to protect the UK and Northern Ireland if in the future there is a circumstance where a trade deal breaks down. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson agrees with the Bill, however, he would still like amendments to be made to make sure that Northern Ireland business and trading is not affected within the UK. Former Prime Minister David Cameron said with “passing an act of Parliament and then going on to break an international treaty obligation...should be the absolute final resort". This demonstrates that some politicians agree with Boris Johnson because they only see him using this as a final resort to making sure the UK leaves the EU with a fair deal.
Opinions of those against Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson faces opponents amongst his party such as from Sir Roger Gale, who did not support the Bill as this would mean not upholding international law. This would also mean damaging the UK’s ‘international reputation’ during trade negotiations. Lord Hague stated that by enforcing the Bill and breaking international law, this would be ‘a serious foreign policy error’, and by damaging the UK’s international reputation it would mean that the UK’s influence would be reduced and they will be unable to protect their interests.
Furthermore, there is opposition from Labour who also believe by passing the Internal Market Bill this would be breaking international law. Previous Tory Chancellor Sajid Javid reinforced that he would not be supporting the Internal Market Bill unless it is amended. He believes that the UK is known by reputation and promising to stay true to their word. By enforcing the Bill, this would mean the UK is going back on their word, thus breaching international law. He understands the reasoning behind the Bill, by also stating that the EU has not been treating the UK reasonably with the negotiations involving trade. He believes the Bill is not the right method to do this because it would lead to the UK breaking international law. He believes there can still be a valid trade deal between the UK and EU without the UK having to break international law.
The SNP’s Ian Blackford stated that the Internal Market Bill is a threat to Scotland since its devolved government has formed. He has stated that when they have talks with the government about the details of the Bill, even the government are admitting to breaking international and domestic law.
Currently: US Foreign Standpoint
Boris Johnson’s plan to break international law may be prevented by the House of Lords next month if Joe Biden wins the US election on 3rd of November. Joe Biden believes that the Internal Market Bill ‘would undermine the Northern Ireland peace process’, therefore he will not sign a trade deal with the UK unless the Bill is amended and some of the clauses are removed. There are six clauses to be removed from the Bill due to the clauses breaching the UK’s withdrawal treaty. Joe Biden was also vocal on this topic for Twitter which reinforced his view that the Internal Market Bill would be compromising. He stated; ‘We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit,’. Boris Johnson may face more obstacles from the House of Lords and the U.S if he were to continue with the Bill, thus planning to break international law.
To conclude, Boris Johnson is allegedly breaking international law by trying to enforce the Internal Market Bill. It can be argued that if it is enforced and if the Bill passes through the House of Lords, it will be breaking international law as the UK would be going back on the Withdrawal Agreement that they signed. However, there is a clash of opinions over Boris Johnson breaking international law, as some believe it is going against UK’s moral and international obligation, whilst others state that it is a reasonable stance, and is the only resort for the UK to receive a fair movement of goods deal.