The UK government has published a controversial bill which overrides elements of the Brexit deal with the European Union (EU), despite a senior minister explicitly acknowledging that the plan would “break international law”.
The UK Internal Markets Bill, published on Wednesday, is intended to ensure Northern Ireland can continue to enjoy unfettered access to markets in the rest of the UK, reports Xinhua news agency.
The bill was published after the UK brushed aside warnings from the EU that breaching the treaty would prevent any trade deal being struck.
The move came as the UK-EU post-Brexit trade talks entered its second day here.
The UK ended its EU membership on January 31 but is still following EU rules during the transition period until December 31 to enable a permanent future trade deal to be reached.
During this period, the UK would have to pay into EU funds but have no say in laws imposed by Brussels.
The bill gives Ministers the power to decide themselves, rather than in agreement with Europe, about checks on goods as well as on state aid between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
It also says that the provisions in the bill “must be introduced notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law”, meaning that this legislation must be regarded first.
On Tuesday, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs on Tuesday that the legislation would breach international law in a “very specific and limited way”.
Tobias Ellwood, chairman of the Commons Defence Committee, said that if the UK government went through with the changes to the agreement, which secured the country’s departure from the EU in January, it would “lose the moral high ground.”
Meanwhile, the European Commission has called for urgent talks with the UK.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said she was “very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement”.
“This would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations,” she tweeted on Wednesday.
For his part, President of the European Council Charles Michel said: “The Withdrawal agreement was concluded and ratified by both sides, it has to be applied in full.
“Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship.”
Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Johnson defended the legislation, saying it provided a “legal safety net” to protect against “extreme or irrational interpretations” of the Northern Ireland provisions of the agreement which could lead to the creation of “a border down the Irish Sea.”
Seeking to justify the bill, the Downing Street said the Brexit deal was agreed “at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances”.
“The Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol aren’t like any other treaty,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“It was agreed at pace in the most challenging possible political circumstances to deliver on a clear political decision by the British people with the clear overriding purpose of protecting the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.
“It contains ambiguities and in key areas there is a lack of clarity. It was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements to clarify these aspects could be reached between us and the EU on the details and that may yet be possible,” the spokesman said.
Following the publication of the plans, the opposition Labour Party said it was looking at “potential amendments” to the bill amid “serious concerns,” a spokesman for leader Keir Starmer said.
“There are obviously serious concerns about the contents of the Bill, the implications on devolution and the implications on the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
Meanwhile, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon tweeted: “In the General Election it was, according to the PM ‘oven ready’ — now, when they want to jettison it in breach of international law, it was ‘signed in a rush’… They are trashing the UK’s international reputation.”