Boris concocts a sour borscht

The Internal Markets Bill is still a hotch-potch solution that does not rule out the possibility of the UK becoming a rogue state

On winning the general election in the UK last December, Boris Johnson promised to deliver Brexit and repay the trust shown by voters in his promises.

The thrust of his successful electoral campaign was that he would finalise quickly the Brexit process as agreed by way of the Withdrawal Agreement that had been concluded between the European Union and the United Kingdom in October 2019, together with the Political Declaration setting the framework of the future EU-UK partnership.

The agreement that entered into force on 1 February 2020 established the terms of the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU, in accordance with Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union.

As the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, then put it: “The Withdrawal Agreement creates legal certainty where Brexit created uncertainty.”

The agreement included a legally-operative solution that avoids a hard border within the entire island of Ireland, protects the all-island economy and the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its dimensions, while safeguarding the integrity of the EU Single Market.

Many felt that Johnson had practically abandoned the idea of Northern Ireland being an integral part of the UK down the plughole.

Fast forward to September: Johnson asks the House of Commons to approve the Internal Market Bill, that sets out trading arrangements in the U.K. after the Brexit transition period ends next January. This law would amend parts of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland and state aid. Last Tuesday, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis – to the bemusement of many MPs – said that the bill would break international law “in a very specific and limited way”.

Politicians across the UK and EU reacted with dismay to this admission, with alarmed EU officials rushing to warn the UK that it expects them to honour their commitments.

The controversial Bill stoked up division inside the Conservative Party that is reminiscent of last year’s high-stakes Brexit brinkmanship.

This time it goes further than Leave or Remain. Prominent Eurosceptics, such as Lord Howard and former attorney general Geoffrey Cox, have raised their concerns over the government’s admission that the Bill, if enacted, would break international law.

All living former Prime Ministers and most former Conservative party leaders have expressed their disapproval of Johnson’s move.

Boris Johnson has insisted that the legislation was necessary to prevent the EU taking an “extreme and unreasonable” interpretation of the provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement relating to Northern Ireland.

The British Prime Minister warned that some in Brussels were now threatening to block UK agri-food exports to the EU, and to insist on tariffs on all goods moving to Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.

However, shadow business secretary Ed Miliband repeatedly asked the Prime Minister – to no avail – to explain how the Bill would protect Northern Ireland from the threat of a potential food blockade.

The UK’s internal market dates back to the early 1700s, when it was created to ensure ‘open and unhindered trade’ across the four home nations. However, when the UK joined the European Economic Community in 1973, most of the British trade laws were replaced by European laws.

Ironically, it was Margaret Thatcher’s government in the 1980s that helped to forge the formal creation of the single market between EU nations. It was designed to open European markets to British exporters and to level the playing field for UK firms across the continent.

Regarding all EU member states as one territory, the bloc devised rules about everything from food standards to fisheries to ensure consistency across the bloc.

With the UK going out of the EU, the proposed Internal Market Bill replaces the current system and aims to ensure all four of the UK’s home nations are not limited by regulations determined by each devolved Government – another reason why the bill is also being opposed by the Scottish and Welsh local governments.

One of the major issues is how this can apply to Northern Ireland when it shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, which is an EU member state.

From this angle, it seems that the Bill contradicts the Withdrawal Agreement, and therefore breaks international law, as it says ministers could have the power to ‘disapply’ previously agreed rules relating to the movement of goods.

The issue gets even more complicated as staunch leavers, emboldened by the fact Boris Johnson has now ‘finally woken up to’ the flaws in the exit deal he negotiated last October, are now pressuring him to renege on more than just the Northern Ireland Protocol.

A relative majority of MPs voted to pass the first reading of the Internal Markets Bill last Monday. There were a significant number of abstainers who could tip the balance in another vote.

Boris Johnson has now partially climbed down on his controversial bill in the face of a Tory rebellion by offering a compromise to try and win over the dozens of rebel Conservatives who abstained or voted against.

Following talks last Wednesday between Boris and disgruntled backbenchers, it was agreed that the bill will be amended to provide a “clearer, more explicit democratic mandate for the use of these powers.” The idea is that once the law is approved, before any of its controversial powers are used – i.e. if the UK decides to break the law – that decision will still have to be approved by Parliament.

This is still a hotch-potch solution that does not rule out the possibility of the UK becoming a rogue state.

Isn’t a rogue state one where the rule of law does not apply?

The COVID-19 debacle

The sudden surge in COVID-19 cases in Malta undoubtedly shows that whatever Prime Minister Robert Abela says, the situation is not under control. The surge in cases has broken all records.

The level of the pandemic in homes for the elderly has become alarming. The issue of children returning to school has become more controversial. The completion of the Marsa flyovers project has fallen back.

It is a case where the impartiality of science has been ignored for political purposes. Politicians taking such risks are, at best, sort-sighted and immature. More often than not, science bites back with a vengeance.

This is the situation that Malta finds itself in today.

More in Blogs