Withdrawal Agreement has been shown up for the turkey it is - Brian Monteith

The Withdrawal Agreement was always a turkey, and now its Christmas is fast approaching.

Monday, 14th September 2020, 7:30 am
The European Commission's Head of Task Force for Relations with the United Kingdom, Michel Barnier, leaves EU House, London, after trade talks deal between the EU and the UK. PA Photo.

As can be expected, a lot of hot air is being expended to try to claim the moral high ground against the UK government and its admission that its Internal Market Bill could break international laws it agreed to when signing the Withdrawal Agreement. The shrieks of outrage are the height of hypocrisy – for there is no greater exponent of breaking international treaties than the EU.

There are many examples from the past I could list but for shortage of space that would expose as utterly false the claim the EU is a rules-based organisation. More like one rule for them and another rule for its victims. The soft loans to Airbus, found to have contravened WTO rules and now being paid for by US tariffs on Scotch whisky, is just one of those.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

Of far greater concern is the more recent behaviour of the EU in breaking the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement itself by conducting its negotiations for a future relationship with the UK in bad faith and without the best endeavours that it signed up to by treaty.

The EU’s disagreeable behaviour started with the wholly biased and self-serving manner in which it has applied Article 50 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. During that time the EU conducted itself on the basis of rules that did not exist – such as insisting the UK agree on a transition period before first agreeing the trading arrangements we would transit to. Now we are in that transition period and still do not know what relationship will be our final destination. It is a political and institutional absurdity designed firstly to trap the UK inside the oversight of the EU institutions, most especially the customs union and European Courts of Justice; or if we still exercise our sovereign choice to leave to then face penalties financial, economic and political that will deter others who might be minded to follow us.

Arbitrarily making rules and breaking others has been the hallmark of the EU27’s approach to Brexit. For example: appointing the EU Commission as negotiator – the only body with a vested interest in the billions it would collect in the event of “no deal” tariffs; disrupting commercial certainty by refusing to discuss trade before we left – by insisting on a two-stage process; cutting the UK out of existing trade deals – rather than rolling them over as the Czechs and Slovaks did in their “velvet divorce”; and preventing the UK from negotiating new trade deals before we left. None of those were required by Article 50 – and all were in defiance of UN Resolutions on self-determination.

That’s called breaking international law – but Theresa May was more willing to lose her own Brexit Secretary, David Davis, who was arguing against the EU’s illegal behaviour, than call it out.

Along came Boris Johnson, who maintained 95 per cent of Theresa May’s appalling Withdrawal Agreement save for removing the Northern Ireland backstop she had agreed to – but which implicitly meant there would be a new border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) where there could be controls on British exports travelling West to Northern Ireland.

The EU, through the solemn public statements of president Donald Tusk and EU negotiator Michel Barnier had repeatedly offered a Canada-style free trade agreement, embellishing it to be even broader and deeper by calling it “Canada, plus, plus, plus”– but only for Great Britain, not the whole of the UK. By acceding to the confected Northern Ireland Protocol, Johnson expected a quick move to a trade agreement in 2020 – as promised in the new version of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration.

Many, including myself in these pages, warned of the problems that were implicit in Johnson’s new treaty. It would split our country asunder – and in direct contradiction to the 1998 Belfast Agreement – because it altered the constitutional relationship of Northern Ireland inside the UK without the people’s consent the Good Friday Agreement promised would first be required.

No sooner was the ink dry and the UK was formally out of the EU on 31 January, 2020, but now in the purgatory of the transition period than the prospect of a Canada-style agreement was being played down until it disappeared altogether. The negotiation rounds were going nowhere and Barnier began to insist that although the UK would have sovereignty over its fishing grounds it could not decide who could fish for what and how much, and that a trade deal would not be discussed until a fishing deal had been struck. There is no fishing requirement in the EU’s Canada deal – or that with Japan and South Korea. The EU was breaking the Withdrawal Agreement again and with it international law.

In refusing to automatically recognise the UK already has the same food safety standards as the EU – and threatening to cut off food supplies to Northern Ireland as a result – the EU has signalled it will breach not only WTO rules (that permit customs unions only if they are not operated in such a way as to create barriers to trade with third countries) but also UN resolution 2625, that “every state shall refrain from any action aimed at the total or partial disruption of the national unity or territorial integrity of any other state or country”.

The UK government has now moved to tighten up the interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement in the UK’s domestic law through the Internal Market Bill. Some clauses could put the UK in breach of the international treaty. At the moment it is a shot across the bows of the EU – but the UK should not wait on requiring the new powers and appearing as if it is the law-breaker.

Instead the UK should repudiate and leave the Withdrawal Agreement – as it would be entitled to do under international law – placing the reputational damage on the shoulders of the EU for the laws it has broken in the last four years.

Brian Monteith is editor of Brexit-Watch.org

 0 comments

Want to join the conversation? Please or to comment on this article.