UK Lords defeat controversial bill breaking EU agreement on Northern Ireland

House of Lords

The House of Lords has re-opened the prospect of a climbdown on the EU's Customs Union [ukhouseoflords/Flickr]

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson suffered a series of defeats to his controversial Internal Market bill on Monday (9 November) after the House of Lords removed the sections of the bill that would break international law.

The Internal Market Bill, designed to govern trade within the UK’s four nations – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – will come into force from 1 January, when Britain leaves the EU’s single market, if a successor trade agreement is not reached.

Controversially, it gives UK ministers powers to modify or “disapply” rules relating to the movement of goods, including the Northern Ireland protocol set out in the withdrawal agreement signed with the EU.

Those measures have been removed from the bill by the Lords.

The opposition to the bill in the Lords was led by the chamber’s legal establishment on the Conservative, Labour and Liberal Democrat benches.

Although the UK’s upper house of Parliament does not have the power to veto legislation, it can delay laws by one year. Boris Johnson’s ministers say that they will seek to re-insert the provisions removed by the Lords.

Johnson has described the law as a safety net to guarantee the integrity of the UK.

However, by giving UK ministers unilateral powers to unpick the Northern Ireland protocol, part of the Withdrawal Agreement that took the UK out of the EU in January, it breaches international law.

The European Commission served the UK government with a threat of legal action last month, to which the UK has failed to respond, with a spokesperson saying that ministers would answer in “due course”.

Johnson threatens to override Irish protocol ahead of EU-UK trade talks

Turning up the pressure on the EU, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is threatening to table new legislation and override requirements for new Northern Ireland customs arrangements, intended to prevent the return of checks at the Irish border from next year.

Labour’s constitutional affairs spokesman, Charles Falconer, warned that the bill could turn the UK into “an international pariah”, while others have pointed to the fact that Joe Biden, the US president-elect, has urged the UK not to do anything that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement.

Biden is expected to raise the importance of maintaining peace in Northern Ireland during his first formal call with Prime Minister Johnson in the coming days.

Meanwhile, Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said on Monday that the election of Biden, who has Irish heritage, could lead London to “pause for thought”.

Senior figures in Biden’s Democratic party have also warned that the bill could also jeopardise the prospects of a UK-US free trade pact.

“This is a clear red line for us,” said Democrat party Congressman Brendan Boyle on Monday, warning that “there will be no US-UK trade deal – period” if the UK government moves forward with the Internal Market Bill.

“The UK Internal Market Bill is not about undermining the Belfast Agreement, it’s about standing behind it and making sure it works and looking after the interests of Northern Ireland – making sure the peace that has been hard-won there can carry on,” UK environment secretary George Eustice insisted.

“The limited number of areas where we took a power, subject to parliament agreeing it, to be able to create legal clarity and legal certainty should there be areas that the Joint Committee process in our negotiations with the EU can’t agree,” he added.

EU and UK officials resumed trade talks in London on Monday. Following a phone call with Johnson on Saturday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen said some progress had been made in recent weeks after the EU agreed to discuss specific legal texts.

But she said “large differences” remained over EU access to British fishing waters from 2021 and regulations on workers’ rights, environmental protection, and state aid designed to maintain a “level-playing field”.

(Edited by Frédéric Simon)

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