Britain on Tuesday admitted that it may break international law by rewriting parts of its Brexit divorce treaty relating to Northern Ireland, as a top legal adviser’s resignation clouded the latest round of fraught EU talks.
Former prime minister Theresa May warned the government was in danger of losing the trust of other countries, while the main opposition Labour party described the treaty admission as “absolutely astonishing”.
After leaving the bloc earlier this year following a hotly contested referendum, Britain is grappling with the European Union on a future trade agreement as the clock ticks down to a crunch EU summit in mid-October.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said Britain will cope with the economic dislocation of crashing out of a transition period at the end of the year if there is no deal, despite also facing the coronavirus crisis.
But the prospect has caused the pound to slump on currency markets and made UK businesses increasingly anxious.
London has urged Brussels to show “more realism” about dealing with a heavyweight economic power on its newly shrunk borders, and indicated it will not compromise on its demands in the latest round of talks this week.
The British government intends Wednesday to present legislation that could undercut its obligations in the Withdrawal Agreement it agreed with the EU last year.
It insists the changes are technical and needed to ensure businesses in Northern Ireland can enjoy friction-free trade with both the EU and the rest of the UK from next year.
To a question in parliament, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis conceded: “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
Since the plans first emerged on Monday, the EU and others have urged the UK to uphold its international treaty obligations.
“Trust and credibility are key,” European Parliament president David Sassoli said. “Any attempts by the UK to undermine the agreement would have serious consequences.”
Lewis said there were “clear precedents” for such a move as circumstances change.
– Shock in US –
Britain also faced warnings from across the Atlantic of consequences for a separate US-UK trade deal if it backtracked on the EU Withdrawal Agreement.
House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi last year warned a deal between London and Washington would be dead on arrival in Congress if the peace accord that ended decades of bloodshed in Northern Ireland was undermined.
On Tuesday Democrat Congressman Brendan Boyle told BBC radio Tuesday it “would be very difficult to enter into a trade negotiation with a party that would have just ripped up a very important agreement to us”.
Lewis’ statement came after the government confirmed that Jonathan Jones, the head of its legal department, had resigned.
The Financial Times reported he was “very unhappy” about the decision to rewrite the Northern Ireland Protocol — a vital part of the EU withdrawal pact designed to avoid a return to the unrest that stalked British rule in the province.
Johnson’s spokesman refused to divulge whether the lawyer had refused to sign off the planned revisions.
“We are fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol,” he told reporters.
But he stressed “we cannot allow damaging default provisions to kick in” for Northern Ireland if London and Brussels fail to negotiate a deal this year.
– ‘Null and void’ –
The government’s claim that it has only now found problems with the protocol prompted disbelief from opposition parties.
They seized on Jones’ exit to level new charges of incompetence against Johnson after months of policy U-turns in his government’s coronavirus response.
Irish prime minister Micheal Martin said he was “concerned about the lateness” of London’s proposed changes and the prospect of it failing to implement a binding treaty.
“We trust them to do so or they would render the talks process null and void,” he told the Irish Examiner newspaper.
Britain and the EU agree a deal must be struck by next month’s EU summit, to give time for translation and parliamentary ratification before the end of 2020.
But divisions remain on totemic issues such as state subsidies for industry and fishing rights.
Martin ruled out the return of a hard border between EU member Ireland and British Northern Ireland, a key part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that brought an end to 30 years of violence.
Northern Ireland will have Britain’s only land border with the EU, and the Brexit protocol means the territory will continue to follow some of the bloc’s rules to ensure the frontier remains open.