I have received a lot of emails asking whether or not the UK will be "breaking international law”. Most of those emailing seem a bit hazy on the details, so I will try to set out an easy guide on a rather arcane matter. The row hinges around a particular part of a piece of legislation, the UK Internal Market (UKIM) Bill, coming before the House of Commons this week. The legislation is designed to ensure that after Brexit, goods made in one part of the UK can move to any other part without internal barriers. It is often forgotten that there are now four governments within the UK with strong legal powers. The UK Government does not want to see those powers used to keep out goods from another part of the UK.
Last year, in order to facilitate a smooth Brexit transition, the UK and EU swiftly passed the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). One of the provisions of the WA was that the EU might insist on checks taking place on goods moving between mainland UK and Northern Ireland if a deal cannot be reached. It was assumed by both sides that a deal would be reached, and both sides committed to negotiate in “good faith.” The EU are insisting we sign up in advance to accept their rules on state aid and fisheries before they even discuss the possibility of a deal. The UK Government has quite rightly said no. In my view, demanding a series of concessions before even having a discussion about a deal does not equate to “good faith”.
If this continues, the UK might (or might not) decide not to apply the parts of the WA which would lead to checks on goods moving to and from Northern Ireland. The UKIM Bill will enable the UK Government to legally do this. In other words, a part of the act will allow Britain to put its own interests before those of the EU. If this happens it will be, arguably, a breach of the agreement.
Those jumping up and down might care to look at the numerous times when the UK, France and many other members states have put aside parts of international agreements to pursue their national interests. It happens a lot. There will certainly be no breach of UK law and passing the UKIM Bill does not mean the WA will be changed - it just means that under UK law it could be. Hopefully none of this will happen because the UK Government is committed to getting a fair free trade deal. If it does and I have to choose between supporting the interests of the EU or the interests of the British people, then I will firmly choose the latter.
*Published in the Monmouthshire Beacon on 16 September 2020 and the Abergavenny Chronicle on 17 September 2020*