Politico

Boris Johnson's Brexit maneuver risks blowback from Biden, Democrats


U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is trying to shake up the trade talks that are a part of his country’s Brexit negotiations. But the latest move by the Conservative government could have the side effect of damaging relations with a new U.S. president before he’s even in the White House — and scupper the chances of a U.S.-U.K. trade deal that Britain hopes to ink once it formally leaves the European Union.

Johnson’s government is attempting to gain the upper hand amid a stalemate in negotiations over the future trade relationship between an independent U.K. and the European Union, releasing a controversial Internal Market Bill Wednesday that proposes transferring regulatory powers over some sectors from the EU back to various levels of U.K. government. The proposal would go back on a prior agreement reached with the E.U. on Brexit. Not only that, by changing how border checks are conducted, the measure would break a protocol protecting the Good Friday peace agreement of 1998 between Northern Ireland, which remains a part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland.

Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill tweeted Sunday that the planned law would represent “a treacherous betrayal” inflicting “irreversible harm.”

Then-President Bill Clinton helped broker the Good Friday Agreement, one of his signature foreign policy accomplishments, which ended a decades-long civil war between those in Northern Ireland who remained loyal to Britain and those who wanted to be part of the independent Ireland. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and other party leaders in the U.S. have already signaled any move to upend the Northern Ireland peace deal would seriously damage the “special relationship” between the U.S. and U.K.

Antony Blinken, a foreign policy adviser to Biden and a potential secretary of State in a Biden administration, tweeted Tuesday that the former vice president “is committed to preserving the hard-earned peace and stability in Northern Ireland,” and that any changes to the EU-U.K relationship “must protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the return of a hard border,” on the island of Ireland.

Biden, himself, has spoken often of his Irish roots and affinity for Ireland, describing a 2016 visit to Ireland as a “homecoming” and telling a Washington audience that year that, “being Irish, without fear of contradiction, has shaped my entire life.”

Brookings Senior Fellow Thomas Wright wrote last month that U.K. interference with the Good Friday Agreement would “destroy hopes of a closer engagement with the U.S.” if, in fact, Biden defeats President Donald Trump this November.

The move also risks a backlash from Democrats in Congress, who have traditionally courted Irish-American voters.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday ruled out a U.K. trade deal if London breaks its Brexit pact with the EU over the Irish border. “The Good Friday Agreement is the bedrock of peace in Northern Ireland,” said Pelosi. “If the U.K. violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress.”

“I urge both sides to uphold the terms of this joint agreement, particularly with respect to the treatment of Northern Ireland, in accordance with international law,” Democratic Rep. Richard Neal, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which oversees trade, said in a statement Tuesday.

Critics both within the U.K. and outside it warn that Johnson’s move could also blunt efforts by Britain and other democratic governments to pressure China to protect democracy in Hong Kong, and increase pressure for another referendum on Scottish independence from Britain.

Former Finnish prime minister and veteran EU treaty negotiator Alexander Stubb told POLITICO that the U.K. government is “putting ideology before reality,” calling the move “unprecedented.” Brigid Laffan, a governance expert at the European University Institute, went even further, calling the proposal a,“hostile act towards a near neighbor” that would make the U.K. a “rogue state,” if implemented.

Lisa Nandy, the foreign policy spokesperson of the U.K.’s opposition Labour party warned Tuesday that any move to walk back the EU Withdrawal Agreement “undermines our moral authority at a key moment” and “sends a clear signal the U.K. no longer keeps its promises.”

As Hong Kong’s former colonial power, for example, Britain is a party to the international agreement which assures Hong Kong independence from direct rule from Beijing until 2047. If London is willing to breach its international commitments to the EU, that opens the way for Beijing to argue it is justified in breaching its commitments to democracy in Hong Kong.

The Internal Market Bill would also deliver a new balance of legal powers between London and the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That’s a point of contention among Scottish nationalists who are agitating for another referendum on independence. Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon — who supports independence — described the draft law as “a full frontal assault on devolution” in a tweet Wednesday morning.

Even members of Boris Johnson’s ruling Conservative party denounced the plan this week, telling Parliament that it would undermine Britain’s reputation as a country committed to rule of law. “How can the government reassure future international partners that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” asked Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May.

The British government’s chief lawyer, Jonathan Jones, resigned in protest over the proposal.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government argues it is simply trying to advance stalled trade negotiations with the European Union, part of the four-year effort to unwind Britain’s membership in the trade and economic bloc.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, the U.K. minister in charge of the Good Friday Agreement, admitted to Parliament, however, that the bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way,” by refusing to apply certain EU laws in Northern Ireland.

Lewis’ admission drew immediate backlash from Brussels.

Charles Michel, president of the European Council, which sets the bloc’s strategic direction, said the U.K. Withdrawal Agreement has to be applied in full, adding, “Breaking international law is not acceptable and does not create the confidence we need to build our future relationship.” Bernd Lange, chair of the European Parliament’s trade committee called for a “moratorium” on trade negotiations with the U.K.

Brexit supporters have long framed the U.K.’s departure from the EU as a way to increase the country’s economic independence. The stalled trade negotiations aren’t yet delivering that independence. As David Frost, the U.K.’s chief negotiator, wrote to Prime Minister Boris Johnson Monday night, “We need to see more realism from the EU about our status as an independent country.” The U.K. will not allow itself to be trapped as a “client state” of the EU, Frost vowed.

For Johnson’s government, the proposed law is a negotiating tactic. The U.K. economy is just one-sixth of the size of the remaining 27 EU countries — limiting its leverage in the current negotiations — and if it takes the threat of breaking international law to compensate for Britain’s lack of negotiating heft and change the negotiating dynamic, that’s a gamble the Johnson government appears willing to take.

Graham Lanktree contributed to this report.

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