- Disputes between participants in Brexit negotiations have only worsened recently
- Downing Street wants to invalidate elements of the Brexit deal that Boris Johnson signed with the EU in October 2019.
- EU worries UK post transition period to market – or produce its own – animal products that do not meet EU standards
- Many conservative MPs are dissatisfied with the plan to break international law
After a long hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, “Brexit” is back with last season!
Disputes over Britain’s plans to breach the final agreement and deal for Northern Ireland have sparked accusations on both sides of acting in bad faith, and relations between the Brexit negotiation teams have deteriorated significantly.
Meanwhile, British MPs are gearing up for a fight in the House of Commons, and the Prime Minister’s office is trying to stop the rebellion among its conservative MPs.
You can get the impression that the question that accompanies us in 2016–2019, “What the hell is going on ?!” returns with redoubled strength. Luckily we have POLITICO.
So what is this all about?
Downing Street wants to invalidate elements of the Brexit agreement that Boris Johnson signed with the EU in October 2019. This agreement – having the status of an international law treaty – forces companies transporting goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain to submit so-called export declarations. It also puts the EU in control of state subsidies granted to companies in Northern Ireland that could have a knock-on effect on related companies in the rest of the UK.
The British government wants to lift both of these conditions and give ministers the power to decide on state aid by replacing these parts of the Brexit deal with a proposed law passed nationally: the Internal Market Act, which passed first reading in the UK House of Commons on Monday.
Wait a minute – what ?!
That’s right: it is a breach of international law, as clearly admitted in the House of Commons last week by Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis.
Does such action have any reasonable reasons?
Well, the UK says it does. Boris Johnson said the EU threatened to block the transport of food products from the UK to Northern Ireland. He also added that the “blockade” of Northern Ireland is unacceptable and is a breach of the so-called the Good Friday Agreement, so London must prevent this by means of appropriate legislation.
The problem is that the Internal Market Act has no bearing on the EU’s decisions about what it intends to import and what not.
Another reason given by the UK is that the Brexit deal was signed in some rush – a suggestion that it overlooked the granting of too much power to Brussels. However, reports show that Downing Street officials knew exactly what they were signing.
The UK also argues that EU oversight will not be acceptable in a no-deal Brexit situation (despite the Northern Ireland protocol was supposed to operate regardless of whether a deal was made or not).
So are the claims about “blockage” false?
Last week, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier spoke in the press, adding fuel to the fire with his statement at the end of the eighth round of negotiations. He stated that there were “doubts” about the UK animal health system after the end of the transition period and that “more clarity is needed so that the EU can assess whether the UK is on the list of ‘third countries'”.
I think I do not understand…
The bottom line is that the EU is concerned that the UK, after the end of the transition period, may allow its market – or produce its own – animal products that do not meet EU standards (chlorinated chicken, anyone heard?…). The UK replied to Brussels that it would keep the EU rules, but the EU did not trust Johnson until he introduced them into national law.
Barnier suggests that the EU could block the UK from gaining “third country” status, unless these provisions are found in British law. A “third country” is a country outside the EU that can export its goods to the Community as long as it complies with EU rules.
Earlier, it seemed that the status of a “third country” was obvious – EU member states may not be satisfied with a possible import blockade.
The chief negotiator on the British side, David Frost, argued on Twitter that the EU already knows what the British animal health law looks like – because it is the law currently in force in the EU. He added that any future changes “will be notified to the World Trade Organization and the European Union as usual, well in advance.”
Is it true?
Experts believe that before the UK changes the rules, it will face some paperwork – including changes to internal agricultural regulations. So Frost might be right.
Both sides are currently arguing about which of them is acting more in bad faith.
The UK accuses the EU of being too strict on animal controls and the EU accuses the UK of deviating from the international agreement.
It also seems that we are dealing with politics on both sides. The UK may threaten a breach of the Brexit deal to increase the risk of it happening
to Brexit without a deal – and thus strengthen its position in the negotiations or increase pressure on the EU by reducing the influence of the community on the shape of the agreement on Northern Ireland. The EU, on the other hand, seems to be playing harshly putting the UK at stake as a “third country”.
The internal market bill was easily debated at second reading and was voted in the House of Commons on Monday (340 in favor, 263 against) despite opposition from a small number of Conservatives. A handful of MPs – some famous names, some rebellious new MPs and back-bench outcasts – refused to support the bill, citing concerns about breaking international law, but most chose to abstain rather than risk the wrath of the prime minister’s administration. The opposition Labor’s attempt to reject the bill by amendment was also easily blocked by the government’s 136-vote majority.
The proposed amendments will be a bigger problem for the government. First, MEPs will consider how the bill will affect common standards across the UK and the possible implications for EU exit. The real action will kick off next week on Monday when the focus will be on Northern Ireland.
So, will the proposed bill on the internal market finally pass?
Many Conservative MPs are dissatisfied with the plan to break international law – they fear it will create a bad precedent and could undermine Britain’s global position. Their fears are compounded by the condemnation of the project by five former prime ministers and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox (a Brexit supporter who handed down the death sentence on an agreement prepared by Theresa May’s government when he refused to support her).
However, the fact that the bill has passed its second reading suggests that it will eventually be passed. Johnson has a majority of over 80 votes and the support of the Democratic Unionist Party. This means that more than 40 MPs from his party would have to actively vote against the government’s bill for the bill to be rejected – or a much larger number would have to abstain (assuming, of course, that the opposition votes against the bill, which it has not yet clearly declared).
When will the main fight take place?
On Tuesday next week, a vote is planned on an amendment to overturn the government’s bill. It was put forward by the chairman of the election commission for justice and former minister Bob Neill. His plan is to force an additional vote before the government breaks part of the deal for Northern Ireland.
The rebels at the Tory camp – the same ones who last year forced Johnson to submit another Brexit postponement request – contacted Neill to warn him that his amendment would not prevent international law being breached.
They said giving the government powers to cancel the Brexit deal would also be a breach, even if those powers are never used. In their view, this means that the parliamentary blockade Neill wants to add to the bill is worthless – and that it must go further.
What if the Internal Market Bill is passed by the House of Commons?
The project will then go to the House of Lords, where it may also have serious problems. Conservative officials in the House of Lords condemned the bill (including Brexit supporters such as Michael Howard and Norman Lamont). If the upper house of parliament introduces any amendments to the draft, it will go back to the lower house for its members to comment on.
Meanwhile, the EU has given the UK until the end of the month to pull out of the project – otherwise it will take legal action.
And that’s all?
Not exactly. Further problems are related to the Finance Act, the details of which are not yet known.
The British government wants to remove the power of the joint British-EU commission to decide which goods transported from Great Britain to Northern Ireland should be subject to customs tariffs.
“Risky” goods are to be cleared – those that may ultimately end up in the Republics of Ireland. Under the British plan – to be published in the coming weeks – the government in London will have the power to decide which goods will be considered ‘risky’.
So we can get ready for the second round of this particular battle in the Brexit war.
If the UK and the EU agree on a free trade agreement – and both sides agree that it is in their interests – all these problems could be resolved and the stalemate could end.
The Protocol on Northern Ireland states that important aspects of the agreement may take precedence, while issues such as export declarations or “risky” goods can be dealt with in a joint committee. Such a free trade agreement – which seems to be an ambitious goal – would mean that goods moving from the UK to Northern Ireland would not be duty free and therefore no longer “risky”.
The current date for concluding the negotiations is the European Council summit on 15 October. The UK is prepared to continue negotiations while the EU takes legal action against it. So it may turn out that the whole dispute is pointless and that both sides will soon reach a compromise.
Isn’t Brexit great fun…?
Editing: Jan Halbersztat