Boris’ strained relationship with international law

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Recently, the government managed to clear a significant legislative hurdle when it comes to the Brexit process. Unbothered by last year’s chaotic conservative minority in parliament, Boris Johnson was able to sail through his amendment to the withdrawal agreement (an “oven ready” one at that!).

The so-called “Internal Market Bill” specified that the government would be able to override certain parts of the agreement, specifically in the case of Northern Ireland’s arrangements, in the process thus breaching international law.

We live in a world where an administration brazenly asked parliament permission to defy a recognised treaty, and won.

Yes, you read that correctly. We live in a world where an administration brazenly asked parliament permission to defy a recognised treaty, and won. This has caused quite the stir. Indeed, in the run up to the crucial vote, even former living Prime Ministers (Tories included) declared the move an undeniable mistake.

Days later, the effects are still being felt. Johnson had to schedule an impromptu meeting of the parliamentary party amid talks of backbench rebellion, and senior tory officials are resigning at an increasingly alarming rate. The latest is Advocate General for Scotland Lord Keen, citing an inability to “reconcile.. obligations as a law officer with your policy intentions”. Ouch!

The bill breaks international law in a “very specific and limited way”.

Brandon lewis

The extent to which the government’s actions are justified is of course up for debate. Indeed, the government admits that the law has been broken; Brandon Lewis’ for instance comically stated that the bill breaks international law in a “very specific and limited way”. Alongside Keen, various QC’s have expressed their outrage at the brazen defiance of international precedence.

Yet the Prime Minister has asserted that he does not believe the EU to be negotiating with the UK “in good faith”, with the bill giving the UK the upper hand. In his admittedly skewed view, this is the sort of necessary evil required to “get Brexit done” (as they so loved to say last winter).

Others have reaffirmed this bold stance from the Prime Minister, with Suella Braverman and Mark Ellis controversially recommending “international law is subordinate to the much more fundamental principle of parliamentary sovereignty”.

Thus, ambiguity surrounding the legal parameters will be debated extensively, but the political implications are arguably more certain, and will yield greater and more tangible consequences.

The status of the Irish Border was always going to cause rows, but the complete takeover of what works best as a compromise by Westminster directly portrays Britain as bullish, inconsiderate and ignorant of the Irish issue. The USA (whose intervention in 1997 furthered progress in the Good Friday Agreement) has been rapid in its repudiation of the government’s behaviour during Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab’s trip across the Atlantic.

Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has declared that there is “no chance” that the UK will get a favourable post-Brexit trade deal should the historic agreement be infringed. Whilst the current administration is far more lenient (Mike Pompeo has given his typically ambiguous assessment that Boris will “get this right”), this may prove meaningless if Democratic nominee Joe Biden win November’s election. He has echoed Pelosi’s strict sentiment by saying that he would not let Northern Ireland be a “casualty of Brexit” on Twitter. 

Through compromise between the front and back benches, the outlook is a little more steady on the domestic front, suggesting that the government could yet weather this storm. A guarantee that any proposed change to the withdrawal agreement after the transition period ends on 31st December will have to pass through parliament will let some sceptical MPs rest easy. But the international reception to this legislative bullishness has already begun to stick.

 This government is coming dangerously close to establishing its reputation as fundamentally untrustworthy. In the mazy web of international relations, that’s a position no one should strive for.

Image: “Prime Minister Boris Johnson signs the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union” via Creative Commons

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