Last night Boris Johnson’s controversial bid to override parts of his Brexit deal overcame a major hurdle in Parliament. The Internal Market Bill has faced extensive criticism from all directions, including the last five living Prime Ministers, but Boris Johnson won the vote for his proposed legislation by 340 to 263, a majority of 77.
Since the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973 most British trade laws were replaced by European laws. Then with the devolution of powers to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland in the 1990’s being carried out in the context of EU membership it meant that despite their new found powers neither country could contravene EU law.
The proposed Internal Market Bill seeks to create a common ground across the UK in order to maintain a joined up market between all four nations to ensure neither is limited by regulations determined by each devolved government. This would in essence allow the international community to have complete access to the UK market as a whole as all nations would adhere to the same standards and regulations.
On the face of it this doesn’t seem so unreasonable, the move would essentially replace the EU as the sole arbiter for most trade policies. However, upon closer inspection the bill has serious legal ramifications and brings into question the powers available to each devolved nation.
Alarm bells were ringing when Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland secretary, calmly told the House of Commons last week: “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way” – surely worthy of a resignation in normal circumstances.
The “specific and limited way” in question refers to the section of the bill which appears to contradict the Withdrawal Agreement – and international law – by giving ministers the power to “disapply” previously agreed rules and override “any other legislation, convention or rule of international or domestic law…of the European Court or of any other court or tribunal”.
Concerns have been echoed further by leaders of the devolved governments, especially Plaid Cymru and the SNP who have described the decision as a “power grab”. Despite the Government claiming the Bill will give Edinburgh, Belfast and Cardiff new powers to create their own laws in 160 policy areas, devolved leaders believe the opposite to be true: specifically, the Plaid Cymru Shadow Minister for the Economy, Helen Jones MS, said it “will see devolved governments having to accept products and services designed to lower standards”.
With Wales setting a precedent for the 5p plastic bag charge and an opt out policy on organ donation, many in Wales will feel the Bill may infringe on any future proposal for progressive policy.
In Ireland, too, worries are tantamount. The Northern Ireland Protocol is a crucial aspect of the Internal Market Bill, and also the Withdrawal Agreement, and seeks to avoid the introduction of a hard border on the island of Ireland. Despite the Bill setting out that Northern Ireland would be a part of the UK’s customs territory, it would still need to adhere to some EU rules to allow goods to move freely to the Republic.
This would mean goods moving from the rest of the UK to Northern Ireland would not be subject to tariffs unless they were at risk of moving to the EU afterwards. However, goods coming from Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK would have unfettered access. In essence, this does not rule out the possibility of increased checks on the border with the Republic of Ireland, something which many would see as a huge step backwards and an affront to the Good Friday Agreement.
With all that being said, what is perhaps most puzzling about this whole sorry saga is that Boris Johnson even finds himself in this position. After all, it was him who revised the Withdrawal Agreement in October 2019, won an election off the back of his ‘oven-ready’ deal but is now planning on reneging on an agreement which he himself signed just this January.
Were they ‘Getting Brexit Done’ then or now? Either way, 340 MPs voted for a Bill which seeks to go against a Brexit Deal they specifically campaigned for just 9 months ago.
Although the Bill passed its first major obstacle, it will need to clear various stages, including the House of Lords, before becoming law. In the meantime, the move will likely end any hope of a deal being secured with the EU and, despite its intention to unite the UK under one regulatory banner, it has already reignited the flames of the Scottish independence movement.
The repercussions of the Bill are yet to be fully appreciated but it has already become apparent that this will only fragment the Union further and, in the eyes of the EU, will seriously damage trust, credibility and any prospect of a prosperous future relationship.