Johnson Puts British Diplomacy, Internal Relations at Risk

The prime minister proposes to renege on Britain’s withdrawal agreement with the EU.

Boris Johnson
British prime minister Boris Johnson leaves 10 Downing Street in London, England, January 22 (10 Downing Street/Andrew Parsons)

British prime minister Boris Johnson has been accused of “legislative hooliganism” and running a “rogue state” for bringing forth legislation that would breach international law.

The Internal Market Bill, which Johnson’s government is planning to enact in order to establish the legal framework for Britain’s internal market following the end of the Brexit transition period, would contravene the withdrawal agreement Britain has negotiated with the EU.

The withdrawal agreement subjects Northern Ireland to EU rules on exports and state aid in order to avoid the need for a border with the Republic of Ireland. The open border has helped keep the peace between Catholics and Protestants in the region for twenty years.

The Internal Market Bill gives UK ministers the power to opt out of those rules.

International reputation

Johnson’s Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, conceded to the House of Commons that the bill breaks international law, but only in a way which is “specific and limited,” he said.

No matter, argues Geoffrey Cox, the former attorney general: even a “specific and limited” breach of international law would do “unconscionable” damage to Britain’s international reputation.

Britain’s ability to enforce international norms would be weakened. Why should China take seriously British criticism of its “mainlandization” of Hong Kong, a former British colony? Why should Iran and North Korea listen when the UK lectures them about their “illegal” nuclear programs? Next time Syria’s Bashar Assad uses poison gas against his own people, he can claim he violated the Chemical Weapons Convention in only a “specific and limited” way.

The legislation also threatens future British commercial relations. Even if the UK ends up respecting the agreement it made with the EU, its mere willingness to flout treaties will make it harder for British diplomats and politicians to strike deals with other countries.

Johnson himself has argued that “the rules-based international order which we uphold in Global Britain is an overwhelming benefit for the world as a whole.” But it seems those rules don’t apply to him.

Internal relations

The Internal Market Bill could also strain relations within the United Kingdom. In its current form, the bill hints at a recentralization of power. That will not go down well in Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh, where the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland want more autonomy, not less.

Specifically, rules on mutual recognition and non-discrimination could cause an uproar. They would allow goods and services that meet the regulatory requirements in one part of the UK to be sold anywhere in the kingdom, even if they don’t meet local standards.

The goal is to avoid regulatory discrepancies between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, however, Scotland — which voted to remain in the EU in 2016 — could take this as another slight. Support for independence in the region has been trending up.