Two former British prime ministers who played crucial roles in bringing peace to Northern Ireland joined forces Sunday to urge lawmakers to reject government plans to override the Brexit deal with the European Union, arguing that it imperils that peace and damages the U.K.'s reputation.
In an article in The Sunday Times, John Major and Tony Blair slammed the current British government for “shaming” the country with legislation that, in places, goes against the very deal it signed to allow for the U.K.'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 U.K.
“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.
With the British government showing no sign of changing course, there are real concerns that the talks on a future trade deal between the U.K. 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 U.K. left the EU on Jan. 31, but it is in a transition period that effectively sees it benefit from the bloc’s tariff-free trade 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 U.K. 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 Ireland is the only land link between the U.K. 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 U.K. — England, Scotland and Wales. 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.
Th 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 Johnson's fellow Conservatives uneasy at the prospect of the government breaching international law.
Tobias Ellwood is one lawmaker who has said he could not accept the legislation, arguing that the bill diminishes “our role-model status as defender of global standards.”