A U.K. minister conceded Boris Johnson’s government will break international law by attempting to re-write the Brexit divorce deal the prime minister signed with the European Union last year.
Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis told lawmakers in the House of Commons on Tuesday that a planned law that would supersede parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement applying to Northern Ireland would “break international law, in a very specific and limited way.”
“There are clear precedents for the U.K. and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change,” Lewis said.
He spoke hours after the resignation of Jonathan Jones, the U.K.’s top government lawyer for the past six years. Johnson’s spokesman James Slack declined to comment on the reasons for his departure.
The suggestion that the prime minister is preparing to walk away from an international treaty risks reviving one of the most controversial disagreements in Brexit — how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It could jeopardize efforts to secure a wide-ranging agreement on the U.K. and EU’s relationship by the year-end.
“How can the government reassure future international partners that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked in Parliament on Tuesday.
As talks between David Frost and Michel Barnier, the two sides’ lead Brexit negotiators, resumed in London, the EU warned that backsliding on the divorce deal would scupper any chance of a trade deal, increasing the risk of economically-damaging tariffs and quotas being introduced at the end of the year.
The controversy centers on the Withdrawal Agreement’s requirement that Northern Ireland continues to be bound by the EU’s customs rules after Britain leaves the EU’s single market and customs union on Dec. 31. That effectively established a border in the Irish Sea, with businesses in Northern Ireland facing the prospect of having to file customs paperwork if they want to move goods to the rest of the U.K.
In a bill due to be published on Wednesday, Johnson’s government plans to give ministers the powers to waive the requirement for such paperwork, should the issue not be settled by joint talks with the EU this year. Johnson’s office said the prime minister made promises prior to signing the divorce deal that he wanted to uphold, including that there would be no paperwork on trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
“The Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol aren’t like any other treaty,” Lewis told MPs on Tuesday. “It was written on the assumption that subsequent agreement could be reached between us and the EU on the detail,” he said. “We continue to believe that is possible — but, as a responsible government, we cannot allow businesses to not have certainty for January.”
Lewis said the U.K. is taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of “direct effect” required in certain tightly defined circumstances.
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