British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was accused Wednesday of presiding over a "rogue state" as his government introduced legislation that intentionally breaches its EU withdrawal treaty in the messy countdown to a full Brexit divorce.
Johnson defended the government’s approach after its extraordinary admission that the new bill governing post-Brexit trade in Britain and Northern Ireland breaks international law.
Asked why the British public at large should respect any laws now, the prime minister told parliament: “We expect everybody in this country to obey the law.”
In a bad-tempered exchange with Scottish nationalist MP Ian Blackford, Johnson insisted the bill was about “protecting jobs, protecting growth, ensuring the fluidity and safety of our UK internal market”.
“My job is to uphold the integrity of the UK but also to protect the Northern Ireland peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,” he added, calling the new bill a “legal safety net” if the EU makes an “irrational interpretation” of post-Brexit arrangements.
The government maintains its new UK Internal Market Bill is needed to smooth trade between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and help power a recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, once a post-Brexit transition ends this year.
But under its EU Withdrawal Treaty, Britain is meant to liaise with Brussels on any arrangements for Northern Ireland, which saw three decades of bloodshed until the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, and will become the UK’s only land border with the EU.
Blackford argued the new bill was a power-grab by London from the devolved administrations in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.
And he gave a withering assessment after Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis had conceded the changes do “break international law in a very specific and limited way”.
“The prime minister and his friends, a parcel of rogues, are creating a rogue state,” he added.
Lewis’s admission Tuesday provoked incredulity across the political spectrum in Britain, Brussels and beyond, just as British and EU negotiators are engaged in fraught talks to agree a new trading relationship by a crunch EU summit in mid-October.
The government has struggled to explain why it has only now discovered problems with the EU treaty’s provisions for Northern Ireland, nine months after Johnson triumphantly signed the document and said it set Britain on the path to a sovereign new future.
‘Moral high ground’
Critics accused Johnson’s government of engaging in bad-faith diversionary tactics as it battles Brussels on key issues such as state subsidies and fishing rights.
Jonathan Jones, the head of the government’s legal department, resigned on Tuesday, reportedly because he refused to endorse the new bill.
The EU demanded an emergency meeting with London to discuss it, vice-president Maros Sefcovic said. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was “very concerned”.
Tobias Ellwood, Johnson’s Conservative colleague who chairs the House of Commons defence committee, told BBC radio that breaching the Brexit treaty meant Britain would “lose the moral high ground”.
“How can we look at countries such as China in the eye and complain about them breaching international obligations over Hong Kong, or indeed Russia over ballistic missiles, or indeed Iran over the nuclear deal, if we go down this road?” he said.
“Any attempts by the UK to undermine the (withdrawal) agreement would have serious consequences,” European Parliament president David Sassoli warned.
The government in Germany, the EU’s biggest economy and political heavyweight, said it expected Britain to “fully implement” the Brexit deal.
Prime minister Micheal Martin of Ireland, the EU member with most to lose from a chaotic Brexit, vowed to speak to Johnson to register “very strong concerns about this latest development”.
Martin’s deputy Leo Varadkar said Lewis’s language amounted to a “kamikaze” threat by Britain, but had “backfired”, given the scale of angry reactions in Northern Ireland, the EU and also among Democratic politicians in the United States.
“I think governments are scratching their heads around the world wondering whether they should ever enter into treaties or contracts with the British government if this is their attitude,” he told RTE radio.
A protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement means Northern Ireland will continue to follow some of the 27-nation EU’s rules, to ensure its border with the Republic of Ireland remains open as required by the Good Friday Agreement.
The row stretches well beyond Europe. The United States was a key broker of the 1998 peace agreement, and Democrats are warning of consequences for a separate US-UK trade deal if London backtracks on its EU obligations.