Minister admits proposed Brexit deal change would 'break international law'

8 September 2020, 13:35 | Updated: 8 September 2020, 19:45

The comment was made by Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis
The comment was made by Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis. Picture: PA

By Maddie Goodfellow

A comment by Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis that the government plan to override elements of Boris Johnson's Brexit deal with Brussels would breach international law has been met with furious reaction from MPs.

Mr Lewis told the Commons that he expects the UK would "break international law" with its proposals to change how a key agreement with the EU operates.

He told MPs it would be in a "very specific and limited way", adding there are "clear precedents" for the UK and other countries which need to consider their international obligations as circumstances change.

A fresh row has broken out over Brexit after the as-yet unpublished Internal Market Bill came to light.

Reports have suggested that the government is looking to bring in changes which would override parts of the withdrawal agreement with the EU.

The reported move would get rid of the requirements for new customs arrangements in Northern Ireland. Currently, the country is expected to adhere to some EU regulations post-Brexit in order to avoid a hard border with Ireland.

The Financial Times quoted a source saying would be used to "clearly and consciously" undermine the divorce deal with Brussels.

Conservative Sir Bob Neill, chairman of the Justice Select Committee, later asked: "The Secretary of State has said that he is committed and the Government are committed to the rule of law. Does he recognise that adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable?

"Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into?"

Mr Lewis replied: "I would say to (Sir Bob) that yes this breaks international law in a very specific and limited way.

"We are taking the power to dis-apply the EU concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in a certain, very tightly-defined circumstances."

The comment by Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis provoked a furious reaction, including from some Tory MPs, and followed news that the head of the Government Legal Department had resigned amid reports he was "very unhappy" with the proposal.

His Labour counterpart Louise Haigh described the admission as "absolutely astonishing" and warned it would "seriously undermine" the UK's authority on the international stage.

Sir Roger Gale said the UK was in danger of undermining its international credibility.

"Seeking to renegotiate the Northern Ireland protocol will be regarded worldwide as an act of bad faith," he tweeted.

"Britain is an honourable country and that honour is not for sale or barter."

Former minister George Freeman tweeted: "Oh dear. That sound you hear? It's the sound of the Supreme Court preparing to remind ministers that intentionally breaking the law - even in a very specific and limited way - is, well, unlawful."

Former Prime Minister Theresa May also criticised the government for 'changing the operation' of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement and raised a question as to how other countries will trust the UK in future as a result.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms May said: "How can the Government reassure future international partners the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?"

Ms May was speaking in response to Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis as he answers urgent questions on the withdrawal agreement.

She continued: "The UK Government signed the Withdrawal Agreement with the Northern Ireland protocol, this Parliament voted that Withdrawal Agreement into UK legislation.

"The Government is now changing the operation of that agreement."

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis replied: "We have worked with the EU in a spirit of good faith and I know we continue to do that, both sides working in a spirit of good faith to ensure we do implement the arrangements which uphold the fundamental principles that lie behind the protocol, and of course our first priority continues to be to secure agreement on the protocol for the joint committee and the wider free trade agreement.

He continued: "But the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol are not like any other treaty, it was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached between us and the EU on the detail.

"That is the entire purpose of the specialised joint committee and we continue to believe that that is possible, but as a responsible government we cannot allow businesses to not have certainty for January."

His statement has been supported by Ministers such as George Eustice, the environment secretary, who dismissed claims the government was doing anything wrong, saying there were just "a few legal ambiguities" that need to be "tied up".

And Conservative MP Tobias Ellwood, a former defence minister, tweeted: "Britain's soft power and respected voice on the international stage comes from our duty & resolve to defend & uphold international laws.

"This cannot change as we secure Brexit - otherwise our stance in holding China/Russia/ Iran etc to account and upgrading the rules-based order is severely weakened."

Mr Lewis also told MPs: "We are fully committed to implementing the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol.

"We have already taken many practical steps to do so.

"The protocol was designed to maintain the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, the gains of the peace process, and to protect the interests of all people in Northern Ireland and that is what this Government will do and will continue to deliver upon."

Brandon Lewis said the UK Government is taking "limited and reasonable steps to create a safety net" to allow it to deliver on its commitments to the people of Northern Ireland and keep in line with the protocol.

He said the protocol states it should impact as little as possible on the every day of life communities and depends on the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, telling MPs: "As we continue to implement the protocol, this overriding need must be kept in mind.

"This Government has consistently said that people and businesses in Northern Ireland will have unfettered access to the whole of the UK market."

The UK left the EU on 31 January but is continuing to follow its rules until the end of 2020 during a "transition period" while negotiators try to hammer out a trade deal to replace existing arrangements on things like tariffs.