Following widespread speculation that the UK government intends to renege on the Withdrawal Agreement, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis was summoned to the chamber to answer an urgent question on the issue. Despite government attempts to suggest that intended changes to the Withdrawal Agreement through the new Internal Market Bill were simply to tie up loose ends, Lewis did admit that the moves would break international law. He said, however, this would be in 'a very specific and limited way'.
When asked whether the new bill – designed to ensure barrier-free trade between all four parts of the Union – broke international law, Lewis responded:
“I would say to my honourable friend that, yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way. We’re taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect required by article 4 in certain very tightly defined circumstances.There are clear precedents for the UK, and indeed other countries, needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change. And I would say to honourable members here, many of whom would have been in this house when we passed the Finance Act in 2013 which contains an example of treaty override. It contains provisions that expressly disapply international tax treaties to the extent that these conflicted with the general anti-abuse rule.
The Northern Ireland Protocol is a part of the Withdrawal Agreement designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. It states that Northern Ireland is part of the UK's customs territory but that it would be expected to follow certain EU rules to allow goods to cross the Irish border.
Earlier in the sitting, the former prime minister Theresa May questioned whether the UK's international partners would be able to trust the government if it tore up the arrangement. She asked: 'How can the government reassure future international partners the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?'
Lewis replied that the government had engaged with the EU 'in a spirit of good faith', adding that, 'the Withdrawal Agreement and Protocol are not like any other treaty. It was written on the assumption that subsequent agreements could be reached between us and the EU on the detail.'