LONDON — After a long hiatus during the coronavirus crisis, Brexit drama is back for its latest season.
A row about U.K. plans to breach the Withdrawal Agreement and Northern Ireland Protocol has prompted accusations of bad faith from both sides and sent relations between the Brexit negotiating teams plummeting to an all-time low.
Meanwhile, British MPs are gearing up for a House of Commons showdown, with Downing Street grappling to contain rebellion among Conservative backbenchers.
That 2016-2019 sense of “WTF is going on?” is back with a vengeance. But POLITICO has you covered.
Whats this all about, then?
Downing Street wants to override elements of the Withdrawal Agreement that Boris Johnson signed with the EU in October 2019. The deal — a treaty of international law — compels firms moving goods from Northern Ireland to Great Britain to submit export declarations. It also gives the EU oversight on state subsidies handed to businesses in Northern Ireland that could have a knock-on effect for linked firms in the rest of the U.K.
The U.K. government wants to cancel both provisions and give ministers the power to decide on the state aid issue, by overriding those sections of the Withdrawal Agreement with a proposed domestic law, the Internal Market Bill, which passed its first parliamentary hurdle in the U.K. House of Commons Monday.
Yep, that would mean breaching international law, as Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons last week.
Is there a good reason?
Well, the U.K. argues there is. Johnson said the EU is threatening to stop the transport of food products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. He said to “blockade” Northern Ireland would be unacceptable and a breach of the Good Friday Agreement, so Britain must legislate to prevent that happening.
The problem is, nothing in the Internal Market Bill would do anything about the EUs power to decide what it does and doesnt import.
Another reason the U.K. has given is that the Withdrawal Agreement was signed in a bit of a rush, the suggestion being that the powers handed to Brussels were missed. But reports have debunked the idea that Downing Street did not know what it was signing up to.
Britain also said the EU oversight would not be acceptable under a no-deal scenario (despite the Northern Ireland Protocol being intended to serve whether a deal is agreed or not).
So is the blockade claim untrue?
After appearing in the press last week, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier put rocket boosters under the row with the statement he made at the end of Round 8 of the negotiations. He said there were “uncertainties” about the U.K.s animal health regime once the transition period ends, and that “more clarity is needed for the EU to do the assessment for the third-country listing of the U.K.”
Sorry, you lost me
Essentially, the EU claims to worry the U.K. could allow sub-standard animal products into its market, or produce its own, once the Brexit transition period ends (chlorinated chicken, anyone?). The U.K. has told Brussels it will maintain EU rules, but the EU seems unwilling to trust Johnson until he has put those rules into domestic legislation.
The suggestion from Barnier is that the EU might block the U.K. gaining “third country” status unless those rules are in law. A “third country” is a non-EU nation that can export to the bloc as long as it follows EU rules.
Granting “third status” was previously thought to be a given, and member countries might not take too kindly to imports being blocked.
U.K. chief negotiator David Frost argued on Twitter that the EU already knows what the British animal health rules look like — as they are currently the EUs existing rules. He added that any future changes “would be notified to the WTO and EU in the usual way with plenty of lead time.”
Is that right?
Trade experts reckon there would be a bit of admin to be done before the U.K. can change its rules — not least in tweaks to its domestic agriculture law. So Frost might have a point.
In short …
The two sides have ended up in a war over who is most acting in bad faith.
The U.K. accuses the EU of going too hard on the animal checks issue, and the EU accuses the U.K. of going back on an international agreement.
And it seems there is some politicking going on from both sides. The U.K. could be going nuclear over the Withdrawal Agreement provisions to increase the risk of no-deal as a negotiating gambit or increase its leverage against the EU by reducing the blocs power over the Northern Ireland Protocol. The EU, meanwhile, appears to be playing hardball with its “third country” threat.
What happens next?
The Internal Market Bill easily passed its second reading debate and vote in the House of Commons Monday, with 340 votes for and 263 against, despite a small Conservative rebellion. A small group of big names, rebellious new MPs and backbench misfits refused to support the bill, citing concerns about breaking international law, but most chose to abstain rather than risk the wrath of the prime ministers administration. An attempt by the opposition Labour Party to reject the bill through an amendment was also easily defeated with a government majority of 136.
The bigger issue for the government will be over proposed amendments, which come next. First, MPs will consider how the bill impacts common standards across the whole of the U.K. and possible effects on devolution. The real action kicks off on Monday next week when attention turns to Northern Ireland.
So will the proposed Internal Market Bill ultimately pass?
Scores of Conservative MPs are not happy about the plan to breach international law, out of fear it sets the wrong precedent and could reduce the U.K.s standing in the world. Their concerns have been boosted by condemnation from five former prime ministers and the former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (the Brexiteer who sounded the death knell for Theresa Mays Brexit deal when he refused to give it his legal backing).
But the fact the bill sailed through its second reading suggests it will ultimately pass. Johnson has a majority of 80-odd, plus support from the Democratic Unionist Party. So more than 40 would need to actively vote against the government for legislation to be voted down, orRead More – Source