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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (REUTERS)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson. (REUTERS)

UK Government plans to break international law over Brexit

A UK 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

UNITED KINGDOM : A UK 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 planned changes to parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement applying to the province would “break international law, in a very specific and limited way."

He spoke hours after the resignation of Jonathan Jones, the UK’s top government lawyer for the past six years. Johnson’s spokesman James Slack declined to comment on the reasons for his departure.

Lewis’s admission, after the government had sought to play down the significance of its planned changes, sparked astonishment among MPs, who voiced concern that abandoning a legally-binding treaty will hurt future attempts to secure international agreements -- including a crucial trade deal with the EU.

“How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?" Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, asked in Parliament on Tuesday.

The government also risks reviving one of the most controversial obstacles to a Brexit agreement -- how to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland -- just as UK and EU negotiators hold talks in London in an effort to break the deadlocked trade negotiations.

The EU has 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.

Irish Border

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 UK

In a bill due to be published on Wednesday, the 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 government has argued that it signed the Withdrawal Agreement expecting to then reach a trade accord with the EU -- and is only providing a safety net in case those negotiations fail.

“There are clear precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change," Lewis said.

That assertion was immediately questioned, and could leave the government open to legal challenge in future.

“Circumstances haven’t changed," Raoul Ruparel, May’s former special adviser on Europe, tweeted. The “prospect of there not being a free trade agreement was entirely foreseen and accounted for. So this doesn’t hold water."

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text.

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