The UK is preparing to break the terms of its Withdrawal Agreement with the EU if it does not secure a new trade deal with the bloc before the end of 2020, a senior government minister confirmed on Tuesday (8 September).
Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told UK lawmakers that ministers are planning to override elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement in a new Internal Market bill that will be published on Wednesday.
In particular, the bill appears likely to override requirements in the Protocol for new customs arrangements in Northern Ireland, intended to prevent the return of checks at the Irish border from next year.
“This does break international law in a very specific and limited way,” Lewis told MPs in the House of Commons.
He added that “there are clear precedents for the UK, and indeed other countries, needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change.”
The plan has been widely condemned by opposition parties but received vocal support from Democratic Unionist Party MPs, who had opposed the Irish Protocol. Many Conservative lawmakers were unhappy with the protocol, designed to avoid the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, on the grounds that it would impose customs within the UK.
The government’s chief lawyer, Jonathan Jones, permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, announced his resignation on Tuesday and will leave at the end of his five- year term in April. He is reported to have opposed the government’s proposed bill.
The Johnson government says the bill is a standby plan in case trade talks with the EU’s negotiating team, led by Michel Barnier, fail.
The UK government insists that the plans will not “tear up” the Withdrawal Agreement that was ratified by MPs in December and January and paved the way for the UK’s formal exit from the EU. Following several days of increasingly bitter threats and rhetoric, UK and EU negotiators convened for the eighth round of trade talks on Tuesday.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned that UK implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement was “an obligation under international law and prerequisite for any future partnership.”
Former Prime Minister Theresa May who, together with Johnson, brokered the Withdrawal Agreement, accused her successor of a breach of trust.
“How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” she asked Lewis.
Several other Conservative lawmakers also criticised the plan with the chair of the Justice Committee, Tory MP Bob Neill, telling the government that the “adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable”
However, with an 80 seat majority, there is little chance of the government being defeated on the bill.