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UK breach of Brexit terms erodes EU trust

Boris Johnson's government recently backed the controversial International Market Bill that contravenes parts of the Brexit agreement. Brussels is now taking legal action, even as trade talks continue.

The European Union had given Britain a deadline: September 30. That was the date by which the UK needed to withdraw its controversial Internal Market Bill, which violates part of the Brexit agreement

But the House of Commons, ignoring all calls to change course, went ahead and adopted the controversial bill on Tuesday with unanimous backing from Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Conservatives.

The bill would allow the British government to override rules pertaining to customs in Northern Ireland — a key and painfully negotiated part of the Brexit agreement. The European Commission, the EU's executive branch, announced Thursdsay that it was starting legal action against the UK for infringing terms of agreement.

A risky gamble?

London said it would hold fast to the bill. It regards it as a "safety net" to protect the integrity of Britain's internal market. Brussels, in turn, interprets this rationale as an excuse and suspects the UK government of acting strategically to raise the stakes in ongoing trade negotiations over the post-transition period. 

The Brexit withdrawal agreement was signed by the UK and the EU this past January. It stipulates that Northern Ireland will remain part of the EU customs union and heed the bloc's rules on agricultural and manufactured goods. This is designed to ensure unfettered trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, and keep the border between them open. 

Cows graze on the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland

An open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland was established after years of conflict

This would mean certain customs checks will first be carried out when goods reach the British mainland, rather than on Northern Ireland's border. At the time, Johnson praised the agreement as a great success for Britain.

Since then, however, hardline Brexiteers among Johnson's Conservatives have attacked the prime minister for signing the agreement, claiming it undermines British sovereignty and ought to be scrapped.

Johnson then pushed forward the Internal Market Bill, which contravenes the agreement struck with the EU over trade to and from Northern Ireland. Observers now wonder whether Johnson is trying to placate his domestic critics, exert pressure on the EU or do both.

If no trade agreement is reached between the EU and Britain, London will ditch the previously agreed Northern Ireland framework. This could in turn lead to political chaos on the island that is home to both Northern Ireland and Ireland, which achieved peace in 1998 following years of violent conflict. 

Former prime ministers appalled

The fact that the bill would breach international law was well known. The British Secretary for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, even openly admitted the Internal Market Bill would "break international law." A host of former UK prime ministers, including John Major and David Cameron, reacted critically, warnings a government decision to adopting the bill will hurt Britain's international standing and sow distrust. None of these warnings were heeded.

The saga has led Brussels to take legal action. Markus Ferber, a conservative member of the European Parliament, called it "the next logical step." He said Britain's move has far-reaching consequences. "It raises the question whether agreements struck with the United Kingdom are even worth the paper they are written on." The lawmaker said the UK not only broke its word, but also a legally binding agreement that it itself helped draft.

Bernd Lange, a European parliamentary lawmaker with the left-leaning Social Democrats, stressed that the EU must remain firm. He added that the British Internal Market Bill will determine whether both parties will strike a trade agreement or not. "The European Parliament will not agree to any [post-transition trade] deal if the Internal Market Bill remains in place."

Lange's colleague, Katharina Barley, also wondered how one is supposed to maintain trust in a contractual partner who has broken an agreement. And the French minister of state for European affairs, Clement Beaune, underlined that a future trade agreement will not be struck unless the Internal Market Bill is scrapped.

Michel Barnier

Barnier has said talks between the UK and the EU will continue, but trust is in short supply

How to proceed with trade talks?

Despite these tensions, Brussels will continue to engage in talks with Britain. "The EU will negotiate with Britain until the bitter end," European Parliament President David Sassoli stressed. The bloc's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, and his team will therefore keep talking with their British counterparts.

According to insiders, however, both sides appear to have reached an impasse. On Friday, Barnier will report on the state of talks. Two weeks later, EU heads of government will convene in Brussels to discuss the state of Brexit. A draft trade deal between the EU and Britain would have to be ready by October if the goal of ratifying it by the end of the year is to be met. The clock is ticking.

Adapted from the German by Ben Restle

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