In his premier speech as Prime Minister, Boris Johnson assured us that “everyone” knows the values that the British flag represents: democracy, freedom, due process, and the rule of law. Yet as his Secretary of State for Northern Ireland admits that the Internal Market Bill “does break international law”, it seems Boris has forgotten, at the very least, the rule of law as a value in his “Global Britain”.
‘Global Britain’ has become Downing Street’s slogan for the UK post-Brexit. Like most political slogans, it does not come with much substance or meaning. Nonetheless, the Foreign Secretary declared in 2019 that ‘Global Britain’ will be a “defender of the rules-based international system”. Fast forward a year and it one may be surprised to find a Cabinet minister at the dispatch box candidly announcing that the government will be prepared to break international law “in a specific and limited way” through implementing the Internal Market Bill.
The issues in the Internal Market Bill lie with Clauses 42, 43, and 45 in relation to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement signed back in January. Central to the Northern Ireland Protocol (part of the Withdrawal Agreement) is that there shall be customs checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Without such customs checks, there would be a need for a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland to ensure that Great Britain does not use the former as a backdoor into the EU’s single market. The prospect of a hard border was rejected due to the instability it could create in Ireland. However, Clause 42 of the Internal Market Bill allows ministers to disapply custom checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, constituting a clear breach of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU.
The Northern Ireland Protocol signed at the beginning of the year also intended to restrict state aid affecting trade between Northern Ireland and the EU, to ensure that Northern Irish firms shall not have an unfair advantage. In the same spirit as its predecessor, Clause 43 allows for ministers to disapply any regulations surrounding state aid, and therefore opening up the possibility of the UK breaching its obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement. Finally, Clause 45 cements both Clause 42 and 43, stating that any changes under these clauses are legally effective despite incompatibility with the Withdrawal Agreement. In fact, Clause 45 goes one step further: to prevent a judicial challenge from the courts, Clause 45 outlines that regulations under clauses 42 and 43 have effect regardless of “any other legislation, convention or rule of international or domestic law whatsoever, including any order, judgement or decision of the European court or any other court or tribunal.”
While it is not clear whether Clause 45 will be successful in preventing a judicial review, this bill represents clear intent of a government that is willing to break its international obligations under the Withdrawal Agreement and to obstruct the courts in their fundamental purpose of scrutinising the executive. It seems that Johnson has forgotten that the British flag represents the rule of law.
In response to a backlash from a series of senior Conservative MPs, Johnson has sought to gain the backing of his parliamentary party, arguing that the bill protects the integrity of the United Kingdom as well as the Northern Irish peace process. It is conceivable that the Internal Market Bill can help protect the integrity of the United Kingdom’s internal market by preventing customs between Great Britain and Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal Brexit. However, it does not escape the fact that this government signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement just nine months ago – and is now seeking to undermine its promises.
To argue that it would protect the Northern Irish peace process is nonsensical. By removing customs arrangements between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland would effectively become a back door access route to the EU’s free market for Great Britain. Without intervention, the integrity of the EU’s single market would be in jeopardy, consequently running the very real risk of a hard border being imposed on the island. Any hard border would threaten the Good Friday Accord and peace in Ireland. It is clear that Johnson and his government have no regard for the Northern Irish peace process, or perhaps worse, never truly understood what they had negotiated in the Withdrawal Agreement and what is at stake for the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The EU has since retaliated, threatening legal action using the remedies set out by the Withdrawal Agreement. There remain major doubts about whether there could be a resolution before the end of the transition period on December 31st 2020, prompting subsequent questions over whether Johnson was ever going to honour the Withdrawal Agreement knowing that a legal resolution would not be possible before the deadline. From across the Atlantic, Democrats, including Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, have threatened to block the passage to any UK-US trade deal if Brexit were to undermine the Good Friday Accord and peace in Ireland.
As ‘Global Britain’ now stands with a tarnished reputation, proving it is willing to ignore its legal obligations, will post-Brexit trade deals come flocking regardless? Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, might point to the newly signed UK-Japan trade deal and its removal of tariffs for 99 per cent of exports as proof of a bright global future. However, the Secretary of State fails to mention that despite the projected £15bn increase in trade, Japan will stand to benefit from 80 per cent of the additional trade, with the UK only likely to see a 0.07 per cent increase in GDP. A mere dint in the possible lost trade from the EU under a no-deal Brexit which looks ever more likely. And in trade deals where our international partners do not gain the lion’s share of benefits, will they now endure the effort of lengthy trade negotiations to face the possibility of a ‘Global Britain’ shirking its responsibilities?
Beyond trade, our moral standpoint looks sure to be eroded. Only three months ago, the world watched as Beijing broke its international obligations under the one country, two systems principle by imposing Hong Kong’s Security Law. It is undeniable that this law undermined both judicial scrutiny and freedom of expression for the people of Hong Kong. This UK government reacted by promising the 3 million citizens of Hong Kong access to relaxed visas for work and residence in the UK. It was seen as a just move supported by 64 per cent of the population. Yet given the government’s admission to preparing to “break international law” , it is now hard to distinguish between Johnson’s arrogant Internal Market Bill and Beijing’s intrusions in Hong Kong.
Undoubtedly, the UK is struggling to find its position and purpose on the global stage post-Brexit. The recent merger of the Foreign Office and the Department for International Development reflects just that. A promise to maintain the UK’s commitment to spend 0.7 per cent of GDP on aid to “safeguard British interests” makes no sense. Aid and development centres around collective interests where British people are not the primary beneficiaries, whereas diplomacy is about immediate economic and geopolitical interests. It is a clear example of the struggle to define itself that a post-Brexit Britain is facing.
The Internal Market Bill goes beyond an innocent and confused struggle to find a purpose – it reveals a morally bankrupt and malicious British government. If Parliament passes the Internal Market Bill, it shows the world that this is a nation willing to break its international obligations, obstruct the courts in scrutinising the actions of the State, and endanger a hard-earned peace process that could threaten the livelihoods of thousands of its own citizens. Welcome to our new ‘Global Britain’.