© Bloomberg. Brandon Lewis Photographer: Simon Dawson / Bloomberg
A UK minister has admitted Boris Johnson’s government will be breaking international law by trying to rewrite the Brexit divorce deal the Prime Minister signed with the European Union last year.
Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Tuesday that a bill that would replace parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement applying to Northern Ireland “would violate international law, in a very specific and limited way ”.
“There are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries that need to heed their international obligations as circumstances change,” Lewis said.
He spoke hours after the resignation of Jonathan Jones, the UK government’s top lawyer for the past six years. Johnson spokesman James Slack declined to comment on the reasons for his departure.
The suggestion that the Prime Minister is about to withdraw from an international treaty risks reigniting one of Brexit’s most controversial disagreements – how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. This could undermine efforts to secure a far-reaching deal on UK-EU relations by the end of the year.
“How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to respect the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked Parliament on Tuesday.
As talks between David Frost and Michel Barnier, the two sides’ main Brexit negotiators, resumed in London, the EU warned that the rollback on the divorce deal would reduce any possibility of a trade deal, increasing the risk of economically damaging tariffs and quotas. introduced at the end of the year.
The controversy centers on the Withdrawal Agreement’s requirement that Northern Ireland continue to be bound by EU customs rules after Britain left the Single Market and the Customs Union of EU on December 31. This effectively established a border in the Irish Sea, with businesses in Northern Ireland. facing the prospect of having to file customs documents if they want to transport goods to the rest of the UK
In a bill due for release Wednesday, the Johnson government plans to give ministers the power to waive the requirement for such documents, if the matter is not resolved through joint negotiations with the EU this year. Johnson’s office said the PM made promises before signing the divorce deal he wanted to keep, including that there would be no paperwork on trade between Northern Ireland and the Britain.
“The Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol is unlike any other treaty,” Lewis told MPs Tuesday. “It was written on the assumption that a further agreement could be reached between us and the EU on the details,” he said. “We continue to believe it is possible – but, as a responsible government, we cannot allow businesses to be uncertain about January.”
Lewis said the UK is taking the power to ignore the concept of EU legislation of “direct effect” required in certain well-defined circumstances.
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