UK ex-PMs excoriate Johnson’s Brexit plan as Ireland says border claim ‘not true’

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, September 9, 2020.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson in London, September 9, 2020. Stefan Rousseau POOL/AFP/Archives

Two former British PMs who played crucial roles in bringing peace to Northern Ireland joined forces Sunday to urge MPs to reject government plans to override the Brexit deal with the EU, arguing that it imperils that peace and damages the UK’s reputation. The same day, the Republic of Ireland dismissed Boris Johnson’s claim that the EU is plotting destabilising new barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

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In an article in The Sunday Times, Sir John Major and Tony Blair lambasted the current British government for “shaming” the country with legislation that, in places, contravenes the very deal it signed to allow for the UK’s smooth departure from the EU earlier this year.

Major, a Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, and Blair, his Labour successor for a decade, said Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Internal Market Bill “questions the very integrity" of the UK.

“This government’s action is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation," they said.

The planned legislation, which will be debated by British lawmakers this week, has led to a furious outcry  within the EU as it would diminish the bloc's previously agreed oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland if a U.K.-EU trade agreement isn’t secured.

The British government has admitted that the legislation would break international law, but argues that it's an insurance policy in the event a trade deal with the EU is not secured by the end of this year. Johnson has said the legislation is needed to end EU threats to impose a “blockade” in the Irish Sea that the prime minister asserted could “carve up our country.” EU leaders have furiously rejected that charge.

Justice Secretary Robert Buckland told the BBC on Sunday that the legislation was a “break the glass in emergency provision," if needed, and that he would resign if he believed the rule of law was broken in an “unacceptable” way.

“I don’t believe we’re going to get to that stage,” he said.

Concerns trade talks could collapse

With the British government showing no sign of changing course, there are real concerns that the talks on a future trade deal between the UK and the EU could collapse within weeks. If that happens, tariffs and other impediments to trade will be imposed by both sides at the start of 2021.

The UK left the EU on January 31, but it is in a transition period of de facto membership – but without a say in EU decision-making – until the end of the year while a future relationship is negotiated. Even before the latest standoff, discussions between the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his British counterpart, David Frost, had made very little progress.

One major element of the Brexit withdrawal agreement is the section related to ensuring an open border on the island of Ireland to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland.

The issue proved thorny during the more than two years of discussions it took to get a Brexit deal done, as the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is the only land link between the UK and the EU.

The EU wanted assurances the border would not be used as a back route for unlicensed goods arriving in Ireland from the rest of the UK. As a result, the two sides agreed there would be some kind of regulatory border between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

Major and Blair, who both vociferously opposed Brexit, said the planned legislation puts the 1998 Good Friday agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland at risk.

The pair said the bill "negates the predictability, political stability and legal clarity that are integral to the delicate balance between the north and south of Ireland that is at the core of the peace process.”

It's unclear whether the planned legislation will get through the British Parliament, with a number of Tory backbenchers uneasy at the prospect of the government breaching international law.

Major and Blair’s letter comes as the Republic of Ireland’s government said that Johnson was lying when he claimed that the EU wants to create destablising new barriers between the UK and the Republic.

“That’s simply not the case,” Irish Justice Minister Helen McEntee told Sky News. “Any suggestion that this is going to create a new border is simply not true,” she said.

McEntee said that provisions for Northern Ireland in Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty were agreed by both sides to ensure fair competition after Brexit, and to comply with a 1998 peace pact that ended three decades of unrest in the province.

The treaty also “ensures the integrity of Northern Ireland as part of the UK”, she said, and it “ensures we do not see any kind of a border re-emerging”.

On Saturday, Johnson accused the EU of threatening to tear the UK apart by imposing a food “blockade” between Britain and Northern Ireland, writing in the Daily Telegraph, the right-wing paper where he made his name as Brussels correspondent in the 1990s, often stretching the truth to portray the EU in a negative light.

Johnson said the EU’s stance justified his government’s introduction of new legislation to rewrite its Brexit withdrawal treaty—a bill that is causing deep alarm in Brussels, as well among former British prime ministers and his own MPs.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP

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