More than four years ago, the United Kingdom chose to part ways with the European Union. Yet the consequences of this referendum still remain uncertain today and although Boris Johnson did keep his promise to deliver Brexit, his government still needs to legislate so that the four nations of the UK (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales) will not divide into four different markets limited by national regulations. That is one of the main purposes of the controversial Internal Market Bill. In a recent tweet, the Conservatives asserted that this bill “will guarantee seamless trade between the nations of the UK”. This statement is mostly false.
🚨 BREAKING: Labour just voted to side with the EU once again.
🥀 By voting against the UK Internal Market Bill – which will guarantee seamless trade between the home nations of the UK – they've shown they won’t stand up to Brussels or protect the United Kingdom from the SNP. pic.twitter.com/ox3I5yFGnh
— Conservatives (@Conservatives) September 29, 2020
Despite concerns among Tory MPs – including former prime minister Theresa May – and the decision of the Labour party to vote against this bill, the Conservatives Twitter account made this statement on 29 September, right after the House of Commons approved the bill and thus sent it to the House of Lords. Securing free trade within the UK and protecting jobs was the ruling party’s main argument in defense the bill.
As a matter of fact, the bill enacts the principles of “mutual recognition” and “non-discrimination”. The first principle basically ensures that any goods and services that are produced, sold or imported into one part of the UK can also be in any other part of the kingdom. The second principle states that none of the four nations that make up the UK can adopt any one-sided law that would “directly or indirectly discriminate against goods that have a relevant connection with another part of the United Kingdom.”
An important exception for Northern Ireland
Given those terms, it seems quite fair for the Conservatives to argue that the UK Internal Market Bill will “guarantee seamless trade” among UK nations. However, calling it “seamless” seems very excessive as the bill includes some exceptions for the Northern Irish case. Northern Ireland has territorial borders with Ireland – a country that does not belong in the UK – which makes it a specific case.
The Withdrawal Agreement that entered into force in February, and thanks to which a no-deal Brexit scenario was avoided, included the Northern Ireland Protocol. In short, it was meant to prevent the risk of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which might have awoken old tensions on the island. Northern Ireland, despite remaining in the UK, has to respect some EU rules to keep on trading with Ireland, as Director of the UK Trade Policy Project David Henig noticed.
Hence the UK Internal Market Bill ensures that the UK keeps control over goods coming from England, Scotland and Wales to Northern Ireland, because it might later be exported to Ireland, in the EU. This means the bill does include some trade controls and, subsequently, one can hardly claim that it ensures seamless trade. Moreover, and that is what makes it so controversial, the bill breaks international law by overriding the Withdrawal Agreement with the Union European. Several members of the government admitted it and tried to put it in perspective. But it actually compromises the treaty and might lead to a no-deal.
The statement that the UK Internal Market Bill “will guarantee seamless trade between the nations of the UK” is mostly false. It surely is the very point of this bill to ensure free trade, and overall it does achieve this goal, but not everywhere in the UK, and at a high cost. Guaranteeing « seamless trade » would allow no exception to free trade, and there obviously are some exceptions here. On the one hand, the UK government breaks the Withdrawal Agreement Boris Johnson just signed with the EU. On the other hand, precisely because the UK needs to cooperate with the EU, this bill cannot guarantee total “seamless trade” in Northern Ireland and hence in the UK. This situation could eventually become very difficult to handle for Northern Ireland as they might wish to keep trading with both Ireland and the UK.