The majority in the British House of Commons has passed a law that partially undermines the Brexit agreement with the EU and thus violates international law.
Despite deep unrest even from some members of the Conservative government party, the bill passed with 340 against 256 votes on Tuesday night. The decision was expected, as Prime Minister Boris Johnson has a large majority of the elected representatives behind him.
The controversial bill allows the UK Government to decide on its own on certain issues regarding trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It includes decisions that violate the Brexit agreement with the EU from last winter, which is binding under international law.
Just before the proposal was published, the British Minister for Northern Ireland admitted that it violated international law “in a very specific and limited way”.
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The EU has reacted strongly and has repeatedly asked the British government to withdraw the proposal, but this has not happened. Vice President Maros Sefcovic of the European Commission said on Monday that the union can take legal action if the law is not changed by the end of the month.
The British government has said that the disputed parts of the law are only a safety net in case the EU interprets the withdrawal agreement in an “extreme and unreasonable” way. During the consideration of the proposal, a clause has also been added that the government must have the consent of the House of Commons before using the powers in the new law in violation of the withdrawal agreement with the EU.
The status of Northern Ireland in particular was central to the Brexit negotiations. The aim was to avoid border barriers between Northern Ireland and EU member Ireland and not endanger peace in the area. The solution was, among other things, for Northern Ireland to follow certain EU rules to ensure the smooth flow of food, livestock and industrial goods across the Irish border.
The new law says no rules can be made that lead to new trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. It is also explicitly stated that regulations and rules laid down by law apply even if they are in conflict with existing laws or international law.
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The aim of the bill, which has now been given the green light by the elected representatives, is to ensure that goods from one part of the UK can be sold throughout the country, regardless of the rules laid down by regional self-government authorities. This has led to opposition in Scotland, where the regional parliament believes the London government is trying to overthrow autonomy. The Scottish Government has therefore announced that it will withhold its consent to the law.
Following the decision in the House of Commons, the bill will be forwarded to the House of Lords. Any changes there mean that the House of Commons must vote again before the law can go to the Queen for her formal consent.
Negotiating the future
In parallel with Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons, the ninth round of negotiations between the EU and the UK on a free trade agreement and the future relationship between them began. The time is running out for the parties, if they are to have time to reach an agreement before the transition period after Brexit expires at New Year. It is now less than 100 more days.
Boris Johnson has said that an agreement must be ready by October 15, the day before the EU countries’ leaders gather for a summit. EU negotiator Michel Barnier has said that the end of October is the last deadline if it is to be possible to get the agreement adopted before the turn of the year.