Earlier this week, MPs voted on a controversial new bill published by the Government. The UK is currently in a transition period that keeps it bound to the EU’s rules until December 31. The two sides have been trying to negotiate a new trade deal that would come into effect once this period ends, but talks have been characterised by deadlock.
With less than five weeks to go, Downing Street is essentially seeking to prevent disruption to trade between the four nations of the UK if no deal is reached with the EU.
The Government described the Internal Market Bill as a “vital legal safety net”.
However, the move has enraged Brussels and prompted a fresh rebellion within the Conservative Party.
European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has set Prime Minister Boris Johnson a three-week deadline to ditch his plans or face financial and trade sanctions.
Speaking in Brussels, Ms von der Leyen said: “This withdrawal agreement took three years to negotiate and we worked relentlessly on it, line by line, word by word. And together we succeeded. And the result guarantees our citizens’ rights, financial interests, the integrity of the single market, and crucially the Good Friday Agreement.
“The EU and UK jointly agreed it was the best and only way for ensuring peace on the island of Ireland. We will never backtrack on that. This agreement has been ratified by this House and by the House of Commons.
“It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or disapplied. This is a matter of law and trust and good faith.”
While it is true that if Mr Johnson goes ahead with his plan, Britain would essentially break international law, according to Steven Barrett, a Commercial Chancery barrister, the country can do so as “the Crown has a sovereign right to change its policy”.
Mr Barrett wrote for the Spectator: “Do you remember when the UK broke the Geneva Convention?
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“Oh, well, we did.
“The Government ratified the Geneva Convention on the Sea on September 20, 1964. From then the UK was bound forever by the treaty and bound by international law.
“On September 25, 1964, we were not.
“No explanation was given. No explanation was asked.”
The judge who ruled in favour of the Government when it broke the Geneva Convention of the Sea, is quoted as saying: “The Crown [The Government] has a sovereign right, which the court cannot question, to change its policy, even if this involves breaking an international convention to which it is a party and which has come into force so recently as fifteen days before.”
Mr Barrett noted: “That judge became Lord Diplock and he was one of our very best judges.
“He was utterly silent on whether or not he thought that example of breaking international law was good or bad – silent because it is a question of politics.
“Obeying this law is part of our Rule of Law.
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“In a way some may find confusing, that may mean we must obey this law – that we can break international law.
“For 800 years when faced with a novel legal problem we have looked to previous cases to find the legal solution.
“As I said, I think we have one domestically with Lord Diplock.”
Not everyone is so convinced, though.
Writing in the Sunday Times, Sir John Major and Tony Blair said the Government’s actions were “irresponsible, wrong in principle and dangerous in practice”.
Former Tory leader Michael Howard also joined in the criticism, blasting Mr Johnson for the “damage” he could cause.
He asked: “How can we reproach Russia, or China, or Iran when their conduct falls below international accepted standards, when we are showing such scant regard for our treaty obligations?”