Everything You Need to Know About the Brexit Bill
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
We all remember Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal, right? It was the core message of the Conservative’s 2019 election campaign and helped them secure an enormous majority on the basis of a quick exit from the EU and leaving Brexit trauma behind.
However, the Internal Market Bill is now threatening to violate international law by going back on this very same ‘oven-ready’ withdrawal agreement and has been approved by the Commons.
How on earth did we get here? And, more importantly, does it matter that we’re attempting to violate international law?
Context: Northern Ireland
First off, let’s start with a little history lesson on Northern Ireland.
The island of Ireland was partitioned back in 1921 when Northern Ireland opted to remain a part of the UK and southern Ireland became an independent republic. This status of division has fuelled conflict ever since, reaching a peak during the 1970s and 80s with the Troubles and the IRA’s terrorist activities.
On the one side, Northern Irish unionists (e.g. the DUP) want to retain Northern Ireland’s current status as part of the UK, whilst Sinn Fein (and historically the IRA) have looked to unite Ireland as an independent state.
For decades these tensions continued to escalate with violence and serious terror incidents (including an assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher), and successive UK governments have tried and failed to establish sustained peace.
Under Tony Blair, however, the Good Friday Agreement (otherwise known as the Belfast Agreement) was agreed and ratified by the Northern Irish people and agreed the following:
A democratically elected assembly would be created for Northern Ireland, modelled on the proposed Scottish Parliament;
A North-South Ministerial Council would be created for issues such as cross-border security;
A British-Irish Council would regulate relations.
Fast-forward to 2019
The Withdrawal Agreement (the ‘oven-ready’ deal) wins the Conservatives a landslide.
The relevant part of this agreement today? The Northern Ireland Protocol ensured that there would not be a hard border between the UK and the Republic of Ireland by keeping Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market and requiring it to adhere to some EU regulations.
This element of the agreement was vital in maintaining peace in the region.
So how does the Internal Market Bill contradict this?
The aim of the Internal Market Bill is to ensure that all parts of the UK are following the same regulations when it comes to things like food standards so that, for example, products can move freely from Scotland to England.
However, it also gives UK government ministers the power to unilaterally change regulations so that they do not conform to the UK’s obligations under the protocol, meaning the bill would violate international law. For example, ministers would be able to impose or remove customs duties and increase state aid, regardless of what the Withdrawal Agreement permitted.
What’s happened since?
Well, there have been lots of stalemate negotiations with both sides demanding that the other backs down.
Regarding opposition from the Tory Party and the House of Commons, the Government reached a compromise; they agreed that no treaty would be able to change our law without an Act of Parliament permitting it, meaning a majority of MPs would need to support it. It has since passed the Commons but is currently facing opposition in the House of Lords which is attempting to amend the bill.
Regarding the EU, however, legal action has been taken against the UK after the Government refused to back down. Whilst this could result in significant financial penalties being implemented against the UK, cases under this infringement procedure last, on average, 35 months. Sounds like a problem for future Boris?
So, the all-important question: does this matter?
Some people say yes, some people say no.
Let’s go with the yes camp first as this seems to have more support across the media and country. The main argument is one about trust. As the UK leaves the EU and loses automatic access to the single-market, maintaining an international status as a reliable partner is extremely important. New countries may be less confident about forming new trade deals with us if they don’t feel that they can rely on us to obey these agreements. Yet, the Government are currently showing to the world that the UK does not care to obey international treaties.
Another important argument is basically just that you shouldn’t break international law. Modern democracies are dependent on ‘checks & balances’ which are methods of ensuring that governments don’t have complete power to do whatever they want. An important example of these is the international arena which provides frameworks and institutions (e.g. the European Court of Human Rights) which the Government is subject to. Showing such disregard for these checks & balances is perhaps an ominous sign.
Finally, the SNP have also criticised the Internal Market Bill as a power-grab by the Government in Westminster as it threatens to force the other nations of the UK to follow rules on food standards and more which are imposed on them by Westminster.
On the other hand, the Government are still standing by their bill and there certainly are arguments for why it shouldn’t matter. The main argument for this revolves around the Brexit buzzword ‘sovereignty’. Many people believe that, as a sovereign nation, UK law should be of the highest importance, or even that the Government is bound to no law besides that of the UK. For example, a legal challenge against removing the explicit reference to obeying international law from the UK Ministerial Code in 2015 failed – this could be seen to represent the authority of UK law over international law.
John Finnis QC and John Larkin QC also write in the Spectator that “it is worth bearing mind that Article 16 [of the Withdrawal Agreement] envisages unilateral disapplication of the Protocol if its application 'leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade’”. To put that in English: the treaty itself says it can be disobeyed if implementing the protocol causes serious difficulties or hinders trade.
It should be noted that many of those arguing this is not a breach of international law or shouldn’t be a punishable act still suggest that it is an unwise move since the UK needs to show itself as a trustworthy partner on the international level.
Hopefully this has cleared up one of the hot topics of the moment and allowed you to have a clearer idea of how you feel towards it.
Now you know all the facts, what's your opinion? Let us know.
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For more on international relations, visit our UK Politics section.