Is the UK Government in a position where it has been forced to go back on its treaty agreements with the EU through the Withdrawal Agreement?
In brief, the issue is this. We have devolved governments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. It is therefore possible for those governments to implement legislation relating to food and trading standards. Such legislation could theoretically create market imbalances and barriers. For example, can goods produced in England be refused sale in Scotland if they do not meet Scottish standards. Over the past 30 or so years, the protection against this happening was provided by the EU Single Market. National and Regional governments could not do anything that would prevent the free movement of goods and services between member states. By default this covered the movement of goods around the UK.
However, now those safe-guards have been lifted, the possibility once again exists theoretically. This is therefore why an Internal Market Bill has been introduced. It’s aim is to ensure ongoing free movement of goods and services within the UK. However, the problem with implementing this is the commitments that the UK have made in the Withdrawal agreement specific to Northern Ireland. Those agreements were designed to prevent the need for a hard border with the Republic of Ireland by ensuring that goods produced or imported into Northern Ireland could not then pass across the border if they did not comply with EU standards. Northern Ireland should not in effect be used as a gateway into the EU to navigate around its customs borders.
Now, I’ve only had a brief look through the legislation this morning – having finally got round to giving this some attention. So whether or not specific clauses do or don’t break that agreement is for the detailed examination and debate. However, I would simply say at this stage that I see no reason why there is need for a law that breaks the agreement.
First of all, it should be possible to ensure a UK internal market whilst recognising the provision within the Northern Ireland protocol. Indeed, that protocol explicitly states that its purposes is not to hinder the internal UK market.
Secondly, I have never particularly seen what the fuss is about regarding the border. To give an example, supposing, hypothetically that the UK decides it can start important chlorinated chicken from the States (and presumably chlorinating our own), this chicken would not meet EU standards. So what happens if someone exports said chicken across the border to the Republic of Ireland? Well, first of all I cannot see any difference between the shop at the other end importing chlorinated chicken to sell and the producing its own. Therefore, the shop itself would have broken EU and therefore domestic Irish law. Secondly, if we were looking for belt and braces, we could introduce a law in the UK making it illegal to export goods to the EU (or any other state) that intentionally fall below the standards of the importing jurisdiction.
Thirdly, this legislation will pass and then the Withdrawal agreement’s transitional period will come to an end. The purpose was to provide an orderly transition. From next year, we will either be subject to a new Trading Agreement with the EU or we will be in no deal territory and under WTO terms. So, in that respect, failing to continue with the terms of the treaty will not be to renegade on them, it will be purely to choose not to continue. For comparison, when I first started working for Bearwood Chapel I was on a fixed term contract. At the end of the 5 years, I could have agreed a new contract (which I did) or I guess I could have kept working for the chapel without signing a new contract and they could have kept paying me. Alternatively, either the chapel, I or both of us mutually could have chosen to end my employment. Neither party would have been going back on its word.
Now whilst the transitional period ends after a year, the Northern Ireland protocol does continue, so to end that would be to break the treaty. However noting that the UK Government has expressed its intent to avoid a hard border and the EU its intent to support a UK wide internal market I still dont see a major problem here. The internal market legislation should be seen as only applying to the trade of goods falling genuinely within that internal market and not imported.
For those reasons, I simply cannot see why the Government would need to act in a way that means going back on its agreement with the EU and breaking international law. In that respect, the greater concern is that they are willing to at least give the impression that they are doing. Such an approach does risk damaging the national reputation and as I have repeatedly said, shows a lack of moral judgement that sets a horrendous example to individuals. Given that, why do they feel the need to do so? My impression that this is about macho posturing both for the home, Brexit supporting audience and for the EU. It seems that the tactic may have backfired spectacularly.