Breaking the law over Brexit

Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson.   | Photo Credit: AP

The latest spectacular development in the Brexit saga is the Internal Market Bill that was passed in the House of Commons. The Bill has caused uproar in the U.K. and across the world as it breaks international law by going back on the Withdrawal Agreement Bill signed by the Boris Johnson government in January 2020. That a country that considers itself home of the rule of law would break international law is ironic. Brandon Lewis, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the U.K. government, admitted in the House of Commons that the Bill would break international law in “a very specific and limited way”. The European Union (EU) has initiated legal action against the U.K. over the Bill.

The possibility of destabilisation

More dramatic is the possibility that Brexit could bring about the Balkanisation of the U.K. into its constituent nations of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Island. The term “tukde tukde”, coined in noisy news debates in India and translated for the British as fragments of the nation, could actually be applicable to Britain, which stares at the possibility of destabilisation. Among the nations that constitute the U.K., Scotland and Northern Ireland would become the major lines of fracture. While the Brexit process and Mr. Johnson’s hard Brexit stance have been believed to be the catalyst for the current situation in the U.K., Mr. Johnson has suggested that the threat to the territorial integrity of the U.K. comes from the EU.

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The unfolding of the Brexit process has revealed the likelihood of a hard border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and the Republic of Ireland, which is part of the EU. To prevent such a possibility, the EU had negotiated an earlier backstop arrangement with the previous Theresa May-led British government. The backstop arrangement was akin to an insurance policy to prevent the possibility of a restrictive hard border that would impede the flow of goods and people. Mr. Johnson had always balked at the idea of a backstop. In the Withdrawal Agreement Bill that he had signed with the EU, the Northern Ireland protocol was introduced to eliminate the possibility of a hard border and achieve the aims of the earlier backstop. It is the provisions of the protocol that he himself signed that Mr. Johnson is now backtracking on with the new Bill.

Mr. Johnson’s Brexit position completely overlooks constitutional developments in the U.K. since the late 1990s, beginning with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. A major achievement of the Tony Blair government, the Agreement ended violent decades of troubles in Northern Ireland and brought peace and stability in the region in the last two decades. It is this stability that the Brexit process threatens to undo. Following closely on the heels of the Good Friday Agreement, significant devolution of powers was effected with the nations that constitute the U.K., resulting in regional parliaments in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

Also read: Britain’s last day in the EU | Here is a chronology of Brexit

Ostensibly, the Johnson government’s Internal Market Bill seeks to create a single uniform market across the four nations of the U.K. A measure taken by one of the parliaments would have to be accepted across all four nations to maintain the viability of the unified internal market. The reality could actually be a significant undermining of the rigorous food, health and safety regulations that have been hitherto upheld by the EU. The example that has most often been used is the possibility of chlorine washed chicken imported from the U.S. filling up shelves in U.K. supermarkets.

On a decline

Since the end of World War II, the U.K. has been on a decline. Yet, on account of a fortuitous combination of soft power through the reach of its cultural exports, the prestige of its university system, and the vast scale of London as a leading financial centre, it has maintained its position somewhere near the top in the league table of nations. Ardent Brexiteers in the true spirit of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ seek to restore the glory days of Britain’s dominance. For this to happen, in their view, Britain has to stop being a more or less equal partner with Germany and France in the EU and ride subordinate on the coat-tails of the U.S. For Brexit critics, the phenomenon is just one more confirmation of the implosion of the U.K.

Perhaps Mr. Johnson and his special adviser Dominic Cummings could heed a bit of oriental advice. A wise ruler explained his ability to keep his countrymen together by suggesting that the tie that bound him to many of them in far-off provinces could sometimes be as fragile as a single strand of hair that he would never break. When his countrymen pulled, he would loosen his hold, and when he felt them relaxing their hold, he would make it a point to pull them closer. Brexit, with its extreme centripetal tendencies, is just the opposite of this sagely advice.

Amir Ali teaches at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU, New Delhi

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Printable version | May 18, 2021 3:38:12 AM |

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