As the British government introduced its new Brexit legislation with the Internal Market Bill on September 9th, the European Union called for an extraordinary meeting with the UK Joint Committee the day after. Blamed for breaking international law, the UK government has caused the European Commission great concern as it goes completely against the Withdrawal Agreement implemented since 31st January 2020.
While the 11-month transition period — from January 31st to December 31st 2020 — is coming to an end, the UK government introduced its Internal Market Bill.
The Internal Market Bill aims at ensuring a barrier-free trade between the four UK nations, even after Brexit becomes effective on December 31st. The bill passed its third reading in the House of Commons on September 29th by 340 votes to 256 (majority 84).
A controversial bill at the European level
This legislation aroused controversy for several reasons. First of all, how can trade between the four home nations remain barrier-free when Northern Ireland shares a border with the Republic of Ireland, which is still a member of the EU ?
The withdrawal agreement specified that the issue of the Irish border and the controls of goods were to be discussed with the EU, but the Internal Market Bill would allow the UK government to make these decisions unilaterally. That “illegal” move could reinforce the pre-existing divisions between the four home nations, especially with Ireland and Scotland.
Yet, according to the Conservatives (Boris Johnson’s party), the bill “will guarantee seamless trade between the home nations of the UK”.
Nothing could be less certain as many political representatives of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland strongly condemned the Internal Market Bill in regard of its illegality and its threat to the fragile agreement reached on the Northern Ireland Protocol.
“By resiling from the Ireland protocol contained in the withdrawal treaty signed with the EU, it jeopardizes all the protections against a hardened border between the north and south”, warned Matthew O’Toole from the Irish Social Democratic and Labour Party.
Towards a unilateral decision-making process?
Beyond the concern over the violation of the Withdrawal Agreement, Scottish and Welsh governments fear for their decision-making power. “This bill provides a framework to allow Westminster to bypass our Scottish Parliament”, denounced Mhairi Black, a Scottish MP.
Indeed, the bill allows the British government to make decisions regarding trade without consulting the other governments beforehand. Mhairi Black even added: “This gets to the crux of why independence is the only option left for Scotland”. Tensions and divisions between the four nations raised by the introduction of the Internal Market Bill lead us to doubt its ability to create conditions for “seamless trade”.
“Violating the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement would break international law, undermine trust and put at risk the ongoing future relationship negotiations”, insists the European Commission, which believes the implementation of the Internal Market Bill would put peace between both Irelands at risk. “The EU does not accept the argument that the aim of the draft Bill is to protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In fact, it is of the view that it does the opposite.”
Finally, the Internal Market Bill does not suggest a solution to the Irish border issue. It rejects the intervention of the European Union in the decision-making process about the controls, but it does not say which form they will take. This unilateral decision raises uncertainty about the Irish border issue which could be a major hurdle regarding trade within the UK. Thus, there seems to be no guarantee of a future allowing “seamless trade” in the UK with the Internal Market Bill.
Nina Droff & Elodie Do Nascimento Gonçalves