International Illegality: UK set to break international law with new Internal Market Bill

October 7, 2020

2 min read

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What's going on here?

The government has revealed a new UK Internal Market Bill, which affects trade rules with Northern Ireland and contradicts the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement (WA) formed in January 2020.

What does this mean?

At the start of 2020, the government finalised the WA which formed a contract effective in international law between two sovereign states (the UK and the EU). However, the new Bill appears to contradict what was agreed in the WA, putting the UK government in breach of international law. Within the WA it was agreed that Northern Ireland would continue to enforce EU custom rules, however the Internal Market Bill is seeking to enable barrier-free trading between all four nations of the United Kingdom which could counteract the agreement reached in the WA. According to Article 62 of the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, changes to international obligations can only be allowed when there has been a “fundamental change of circumstances”, which does not appear to be the case here. 

Many Conservative and Labour ministers have publicly disapproved of the government’s plans and the permanent secretary to the Government Legal Department, Sir Jonathan Jones, announcing his resignation as a result. In Parliament, Brandon Lewis (Northern Ireland Secretary) explicitly stated that the new Bill will “break international law”. Other MPs, such as Theresa Villiers have attempted to defend the government, arguing that it is “not unusual” for countries to disregard international laws.

What's the big picture effect?

These plans were revealed in the 8th round of post-Brexit trade deal talks which have been taking place as both sides attempt to reach an agreement before the end of December 2020. Prime Minister Boris Johnson has continuously warned that if a trade deal cannot be agreed by the meeting of the European Council, set for 15 October 2020, that the UK would officially leave the EU without a formal trade deal in place. 

The issue of the Irish border, which is dealt with in the Northern Ireland Protocol to the WA, has been a bone of contention during the Brexit talks. Historically, the removal of the hard border was signatory of peace between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and it is therefore suspected that the reinstalment of a visible hard border will bring a great deal of political instability to the area. 

As well as causing disagreement in Parliament, the details of the Bill lack public support. A YouGov poll found that 47% of voters think that breaking the law is unacceptable, and only 25% were in favour. If the plans go ahead, it is likely that Boris Johnson will see more of his government resigning from their positions. Lord Keen, Scotland’s Advocate General, has already made the decision to resign as he admitted to the PM, “I have found it increasingly difficult to reconcile what I consider to be my obligations as a Law Officer with your policy intentions.”

Since talk of Brexit began in 2015, successive governments have faced backlash and conflict when attempting to negotiate a future trading relationship. In recent months, the pandemic has asphyxiated the nation’s politics, but a great storm now awaits the government with the impending Brexit deadline and a regrettable coronavirus second wave.

Report written by Sophie Hardava

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