Brexit negotiations hit a new low this week as the European Union’s top leaders in Brussels reacted angrily to British prime minister Boris Johnson’s plans to override a key part of Britain’s withdrawal agreement from the EU, which was struck only last year.
They say any repudiation of the divorce deal will ruin the chances of a free-trade agreement being struck between Britain and the EU and will poison relations between London and Brussels for years to come.
The British government’s plan included in draft legislation published Wednesday, to in effect repudiate parts of the exit deal, prompted European leaders to complain of an “unprecedented breach of trust” and to warn the move could wreck current fraught negotiations dealing with Britain’s future trade relationship with the bloc.
Under the new legislation if passed, ministers would be able to pick and choose what customs checks, if any, are applied to goods transported between Northern Ireland and the British mainland. They would be able to ignore EU limitations on state aid to businesses in the British-ruled province. Northern Ireland was treated differently under the withdrawal agreement so as to avoid the necessity of a so-called hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, which many feel could undermine peace on the island of Ireland.
Micheál Martin, the Irish prime minister, said midweek the negotiations on Britain’s future relationship would go nowhere until Johnson’s ruling Conservative government withdraws the bill. Irish lawmakers were stunned when they heard news of the proposed legislation. “Any negotiation process can only proceed on the basis of trust,” he warned.
The EU’s top leaders chorused identical warnings. Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, said it showed the government’s “intentions to breach the withdrawal agreement.”
In the wake of the publication of the controversial legislation, EU officials considered instructing Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, to walk out of talks that are under way in London to hammer out an agreement on Britain’s future trade relationship with the 27-member bloc. In the event they decided to keep the talks going, but the discussions are reportedly tense and tough with mounting expectations that a no-deal result will be the eventual outcome.
British officials say the proposed legislation would clarify ambiguity in the withdrawal agreement, but on Tuesday Britain’s Northern Ireland minister admitted that technically the legislation would break international law. That view is shared generally by Britain’s legal establishment. In a letter to The Times newspaper, Edward Garnier, a former Conservative solicitor-general, said, the “admission by the Northern Ireland secretary that the government is prepared to break the law is shocking.”
Future trade relations
The move has provoked a sharp political response from senior U.S. lawmakers, mainly Democrats, who are largely fretful that the move might undermine peace on the island of Ireland. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, warned a free trade deal between Britain and America would be jeopardized, saying a British violation would mean “there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-UK trade agreement passing the Congress.”
Johnson defended the move in the House of Commons, saying, “We need a legal safety net to protect our country against extreme or irrational interpretations of the protocol which could lead to a border down the Irish Sea in a way.” His officials have suggested the withdrawal agreement, which Johnson concluded with the EU but was mainly the work of his predecessor, Theresa May, was negotiated at pace and maybe signed in haste.
Johnson’s defense is not, so far, assuaging some senior Conservative lawmakers, including a few on the Brexit wing of the party. “Put simply, I will not vote to break the law,” said the pro-Brexit Roger Gale . “Why would any country want to strike a deal with Britain knowing that any agreement might not be worth the paper that it was written on?” he added.
Johnson’s Conservative predecessors in Downing Street have also expressed disapproval of the government’s plan to repudiate the withdrawal agreement using domestic legislation to do so. “For generations our signature on any treaty or agreement has been sacrosanct,” said John Major. “Over the last century as our military strength has dwindled, our word has retained its power. If we lose our reputation for honoring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price.”
Theresa May also condemned the mover and her aides say she is ready to lead a Conservative rebellion in the British parliament to defeat the proposed legislation.
Some lawmakers and commentators are suggesting that the legislation may be part of a Johnson strategy to shock the EU into agreeing a free-trade deal more favorable to Britain than it would otherwise secure.
A Trump approach?
They point to comments Johnson made in 2018, before he was prime minister, in which he reportedly said Britain should be negotiating with the EU like U.S. President Donald Trump would. “I am increasingly admiring of Donald Trump,” Johnson is reported to have told a private gathering of Conservative lawmakers. “Imagine Trump doing Brexit,” Johnson continued. “There’d be all sorts of breakdowns, all sorts of chaos. Everyone would think he’d gone mad. But actually you might get somewhere. It’s a very, very good thought.”
Conversely, some uncompromising Brexiters in Johnson’s ruling Conservative party, who want a clean break from the EU, fear Johnson might be game-playing and laying the ground to offer significant concessions to the EU to get a last-minute free-trade deal that he will advertise as a great win for Britain. They worry he’s engaging in a piece of theater. Brexiters point to what happened last year when he repudiated the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by his predecessor in Downing Street, Theresa May, only to sign an almost identical divorce deal after he was elected her successor.