Reports that legislation is to be introduced by the British government to “eliminate the legal force” of parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, and specifically in relation to the border through Ireland, have sent shock waves around Europe.
The British government has been warned not to renege on their Brexit commitments to the peace process after Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he is planning to introduce new legislation which would reportedly override key parts of the treaty signed in January.
Sections of the legislation, due to be published this Wednesday, is said to include a specific mechanism to undermine the agreement’s protocol designed to prevent a hard border through the island.
The plan threatens to upend the agreed regulatory and customs framework intended to keep the Six Counties in line with EU Customs rules. It would represent a clear violation of the Good Friday Agreement and international law, and set back Brexit negotiations by at least a year,
The reports have come as a bombshell, though officially the EU said it expected London to live up to its obligations.
The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, said the protocol on Ireland was “essential to protect peace and stability on the island and integrity of the single market”. She pointed out that the Withdrawal Agreement is “an obligation under international law” and “a prerequisite for any future partnership”.
The threatened reversal fits into a long-standing tradition of British duplicity when entering into agreements on Ireland. Unionists, however, welcomed the plan and said it would mean there would be no ‘border in the Irish Sea’.
DUP MP Sammy Wilson said he would be “very happy” for London to scrap the Withdrawal Agreement. “If the government is [meaning] to tear it up I would encourage them to do so but I don’t know that that is the case and I haven’t seen the bill,” he said.
Speaking on Irish radio, the 26 County Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said the move would be “a very serious breach of trust” and would “fundamentally undermine the negotiations going on at the moment”.
He added: “I hope that it is a fake story and that it is not going to be as serious and as negative as some people are suggesting.”
Tánaiste Leo Varadkar claimed it was “sabre-rattling” and “posturing” by London. “It is an international agreement, it’s an international treaty and we expect any honourable country like the United Kingdom (sic) to honour its international commitments and no domestic law passed in any parliament can override an international treaty.”
The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was less optimistic. She said the move would significantly increase the likelihood of a crash-out ‘no deal’ Brexit, and that the resulting damage would be “entirely Tory inflicted”. She described the Tory government simply as “charlatans”.
Naomi Long of the Alliance Party said there would be “catastrophic consequences” should Westminster override the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Let’s make it clear right now where we stand and the catastrophic consequences of such action now, while there is a chance of influencing how this unfolds,” she said. “At the very least, if they proceed, they can’t claim the damage it will bring in its wake was not anticipated.”
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald said she was deeply concerned that Johnson was planning to step away from his international obligations.
“To do so would show total disregard for the lives and concerns of the people of Ireland,” she said.
“Throughout the sorry saga of Brexit, Sinn Féin have been very clear that Ireland cannot become collateral damage to the posturing of the British government in this Tory Brexit.
“The all-Ireland economy, the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement must be protected. There can be absolutely no hardening of the border. The Withdrawal Agreement and the Irish Protocol cannot be abandoned and must be honoured.
“The north voted to remain in the EU and across the community there are very real fears about the threat that Brexit poses to people’s livelihoods and the stability of community relations.”
She said she was “absolutely clear” that there could be no reneging on the British government’s obligations to protect people in the north of Ireland from the damages of Brexit.
“Any u-turn by Boris Johnson would be an extraordinary and indefensible act of bad faith which would totally undermine his credibility and that of the British government,” she said.
“The Irish people need clarity and certainty about Brexit and must not be treated as political pawns by the British government at this late stage in negotiations.”