British PM Boris Johnson defends Brexit bill that would breach EU withdrawal treaty

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on September 9, 2020.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street on September 9, 2020. © Ben Stansall, AFP

France and Germany vowed to maintain a united front in talks with Britain as the UK unveiled its new Brexit bill on Wednesday, a day after admitting that it might be violating international law with its EU withdrawal treaty.

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused Wednesday of presiding over a "rogue state" as his government introduced legislation that intentionally breaches its EU withdrawal treaty in the messy countdown to a full Brexit divorce. 

Johnson defended the government's approach after its extraordinary admission that the new bill governing post-Brexit trade in Britain and Northern Ireland breaks international law.

Asked why the British public at large should respect any laws now, the prime minister told parliament: "We expect everybody in this country to obey the law."

In a bad-tempered exchange with Scottish nationalist MP Ian Blackford, Johnson insisted the bill was about "protecting jobs, protecting growth, ensuring the fluidity and safety of our UK internal market".

"My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK but also to protect the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement," he added, calling the new bill a "legal safety net" if the EU makes an "irrational interpretation" of post-Brexit arrangements.

The government maintains that its new UK Internal Market Bill is needed to smooth trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and help power a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, once a post-Brexit transition ends this year.

But under its EU Withdrawal Agreement, Britain is meant to liaise with Brussels on any arrangements for Northern Ireland, which saw three decades of bloodshed until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and will become the UK's only land border with the EU.

'Breaking international law not acceptable'

The EU on Wednesday warned Britain that even the most minor breach of the EU Withdrawal Agreement would undermine what little trust is left between the two sides in already fragile trade talks.

“Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship,” European Council President Charles Michel said.

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European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said the age-old diplomatic cornerstone that “agreements must be kept” was “the foundation of prosperous future relations”.

Britain has agreed to meet the EU after Brussels called for a meeting to swiftly clarify "strong concerns" over the new bill.

Germany and France pledged Wednesday to maintain a strong united front in talks with Britain on its future relationship with the EU. After Britain's bombshell announcement a day earlier that it may violate international law with its EU withdrawal treaty, the Franco-German duo said it was on the same page.

"The French position is also the German position that is, namely, the EU position," Germany's state minister for European affairs, Michael Roth, said in a joint interview with his visiting French counterpart Clement Beaune.  

Since Germany took over the presidency of the EU on July 1, Chancellor Angela Merkel has repeatedly warned that the bloc must prepare for the possibility that talks could collapse.

The likelihood of failure increased dramatically this week when the British government admitted its new bill governing post-Brexit trade in Britain and Northern Ireland breaks international law albeit in a "limited" way.

'Parcel of rogues are creating a rogue state'

During the parliamentary session, Blackford argued the new bill was a power grab by London from the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

He also gave a withering assessment after Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had conceded the changes do "break international law in a very specific and limited way".

"The prime minister and his friends, a parcel of rogues, are creating a rogue state," he added.

The UK government has struggled to explain why it has only now discovered problems with the EU treaty's provisions for Northern Ireland, nine months after Johnson triumphantly signed the document and said it set Britain on the path to a sovereign new future.

'Moral high ground'

Critics accused Johnson's government of engaging in bad-faith diversionary tactics as it battles Brussels on key issues such as state subsidies and fishing rights.

Jonathan Jones, the head of the government's legal department, resigned on Tuesday, reportedly because he refused to endorse the new bill.

Tobias Ellwood, Johnson's Conservative colleague who chairs the House of Commons defence committee, told BBC radio that breaching the Brexit treaty meant Britain would "lose the moral high ground".

"How can we look at countries such as China in the eye and complain about them breaching international obligations over Hong Kong, or indeed Russia over ballistic missiles, or indeed Iran over the nuclear deal, if we go down this road?" he said.

A protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement means Northern Ireland will continue to follow some of the 27-nation EU's rules, to ensure its border with the Republic of Ireland remains open as required by the Good Friday Agreement.

The row stretches well beyond Europe. The US was a key broker of the 1998 peace agreement, and Democrats are warning of consequences for a separate US-UK trade deal if London backtracks on its EU obligations.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP and REUTERS)

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