European Commission official Maroš Šefčovič has stated the UK must ditch their proposed ‘Internal Market Bill’ by the end of the month or risk jeopardising bilateral trade talks and future legal action against them.
The Internal Market Bill has been the source of much controversy. By the admission of the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, it apparently violates international law and the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, signed into law on the 24th of January this year. This new Bill addresses ‘The Northern Ireland Protocol’, a section of the EU-UK agreement designed to prevent the return of a hard border to the island of Ireland, via the creation of a customs and regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This means that there would be limited regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland during the one-year transition period at least.
This new bill however, seeks to dismantle this invisible border across the Irish sea via proposing no new checks on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, and giving the UK Government powers to modify or remove rules relating to the movement of goods that will come into force at the start of 2021 if the UK and EU are unable to strike a long-term trade deal. The UK Government states this new bill will protect the Northern Irish peace process, ensure the integrity of the UK internal market and hand power to the devolved assemblies of the UK.
High-level emergency talks following the UK’s publication of the bill resulted in the EU issuing a robust warning that ‘neither the EU nor the UK can unilaterally change, clarify, amend, interpret, disregard or dis-apply the [withdrawal]agreement’ considering it was a ‘legal obligation’ for both parties to honour it.
The EU rejected the UK’s arguments that the bill is designed to protect peace in Northern Ireland, arguing that ‘it does the opposite’. Mr Šefčovič also went on to say that the planned bill ‘had seriously damaged trust’ between themselves and and the UK, concluding that this bill amounted to an ‘extremely serious violation’ of the withdrawal agreement and of international law. The Commission member urged the government to withdraw the bill ‘by the end of the month’, adding that the withdrawal agreement ‘contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using’.
Issuing their own strongly-worded response, the UK government said it would ‘discharge its treaty obligations in good faith’, but added that: ‘in the difficult and highly exceptional circumstances in which we find ourselves, it is important to remember the fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament is sovereign as a matter of domestic law and can pass legislation which is in breach of the UK’s treaty obligations. Parliament would not be acting unconstitutionally in enacting such legislation. Treaty obligations only become binding to the extent that they are enshrined in domestic legislation. Whether to enact or repeal legislation, and the content of that legislation, is for Parliament and Parliament alone.’
The Internal Market Bill will be formally debated by MPs in Parliament for the first time on Monday, 14 September and has its growing number of critics in the UK as well as the EU. Labour leader Keir Starmer urged the government to consider ‘the reputational risk that it’s taking in the proposed way forward’, while Boris Johnson’s Prime Ministerial predecessor, Theresa May, warned that the bill threatened to damage the UK’s international reputation. The permanent secretary to the government legal service, Sir Jonathan Jones, also resigned. It has been widely reported that he did so out of concern that the government’s actions would be illegal.