Boris Johnson risks an early dispute with US President-elect Joe Biden over Britain’s potential breach of international law that could put Northern Ireland’s peace deal at risk.
As part of Brexit negotiations, the prime minister introduced the Internal Markets Bill (IMB) that would allow Britain to override export rules in its Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union for goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.
When the Bill was introduced to Parliament earlier this year, ministers admitted that it broke international law in a “specific and limited way” as it would overrule the agreement already struck with the EU.
There were also deep misgivings that the legislation could have a negative effect on the peace deal in Northern Ireland by creating a ‘hard border’ with the Irish Republic. Currently there is no customs border between the countries.
Mr Biden, who has strong Irish roots, reacted negatively to the IMB announcement in September, tweeting: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.”
The US president-elect is an ardent supporter of the agreement as a cornerstone to political stability and peace in Northern Ireland.
Mr Biden’s concerns were highlighted by Gordon Brown, the former Labour prime minister. “He is not going to allow a trade deal with Britain to happen if we in some way breach the Good Friday Agreement,” he told the BBC.
Sir Keir Starmer, the current Labour leader, said Mr Biden would take a “dim view” of the move “if our Prime Minister ploughs ahead with proposals to undermine that agreement”, and urged the government to drop the legislation.
The IMB issue is likely to feature prominently when Mr Biden and Mr Johnson have their first conversation and especially when Britain enters into discussions over a trade agreement with the US in the post-Brexit era.
If passed, the legislation would introduce laws allowing Whitehall to overrule the export rules for goods travelling from Britain to Northern Ireland.
While the EU and Mr Biden regard this as a threat to stability in Northern Ireland and a breach of an international treaty, Mr Johnson’s team sees it as a safety net to protect British goods if no trade deal is struck with Europe by the end of this year.
The clauses are expected to be defeated in the House of Lords on Monday but the government could still force through legislation and Mr Johnson has shown no sign of backing down.
“The whole point of that bill is to protect and uphold the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in Northern Ireland,” he said yesterday. “That’s one of the things that we’re united on with our friends in the White House.”
The situation might be resolved if Britain is able to strike a trade deal with the EU in the coming weeks, allowing Mr Johnson to work on building a stronger relationship with the new US president