The government’s deal: ‘oven-ready’ or half-baked?

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The Government’s internal market bill, should it become law, will override the Withdrawal Agreement Act.

No doubt during drafting, the Withdrawal Agreement was subject to line-by-line minute scrutiny by specialists in international law and trade. An agreement whose overall governance structure, according to the EU Commission, ensures its “effective management, implementation and enforcement … including appropriate dispute settlement mechanisms”. Why, then, has the government deliberately chosen this critical moment in its negotiations – already in a fragile state – to risk reneging on an international agreement that’s less than a year old? 

As the Government has confirmed, the UK Internal Market Bill, if enacted, will breach international law in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol. Our Brexit trade talks will be undermined by a Bill that could remove all customs checks on goods moving between Britain and Northern Ireland, which are vital to preventing a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Thousands of people could become bargaining chips. It would be a reckless gamble, putting the Northern Ireland peace process at serious risk. Who would even contemplate returning to those dark days?

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As Mrs May, Lord Howard and others have said, Britain now risks its reputation as a trustworthy nation just as we are trying to renegotiate new global trade deals. What kind of country are we? One that keeps its promises at home and abroad? Or, as others have suggested, an international pariah, even a “rogue state”?

And this has wider consequences. The Internal Market Bill would undermine the powers of the Scottish parliament, as Nicola Sturgeon has warned: “The Internal Market Bill that the UK Government will publish today is a full frontal assault on devolution … The SNP will make the case for independence”.

Further, the Welsh counsel general and minister for European transition, Jeremy Miles, has warned that the UK Government is “explicitly seeking to rewrite the devolution settlement” adding, “the UK government plans to sacrifice the future of the union by stealing powers from devolved administrations”. On the subject of the Bill’s proposals for mutual recognition, he went on:

“[They] may sound sensible but they are the starting gun for a race to the bottom, undermining the high standards we currently enjoy in terms of food standards, animal welfare and the environment. Vital decisions over support for Welsh businesses, important infrastructure and investment opportunities and the safety of the food on the shelves of Welsh supermarkets should be made in Wales, by the government of Wales, and with the consent of the Senedd – and not at the behest of Conservative backbenchers. The UK government is explicitly seeking to rewrite the devolution settlement. The fact that they are also seeking primary legislation shows they are taking those powers from us.”

So much for our precious Union, and a reminder of the “Henry VIII powers” arguments of recent years. Ever since the 2016 referendum, the devolved administrations have repeatedly asked Westminster to consider their legitimate interests. Time and time again, they feel they have been ignored.

And further afield? Should Mr Biden become US President, he will most likely, as did former President Clinton, seek to defend and preserve the Good Friday Agreement. Failure would risk our close relationship with the USA, and might even block the bilateral trade relationship our government so desperately seeks.

But in one respect at least, Mr Johnson is consistent: there is a clear pattern indicating his scant disregard of generally accepted norms and procedures. His failed attempt last year to prorogue parliament for a period far in excess of what was conventional or necessary; his failure to condemn Mr Cummings’ non-compliant lockdown excursion to County Durham; and now, his efforts to sabotage the current EU trade talks.

Many months ago, the Prime Minister made clear that he was prepared to walk away; and one now senses the inexorability of Greek tragedy: a subject in which he is no doubt well versed.