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Push for British sovereignty risks worst possible Brexit outcome

Summary:
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s zeal over asserting British sovereignty in Brexit negotiations has not only torpedoed the talks over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. It has also increased the likelihood of the worst possible long-term relationship with the EU and Ireland while almost certainly destroying prospects for a trade agreement with the United States. And it has raised the possibility of the most sweeping and disruptive “no deal” Brexit by year’s end, with no agreement on anything at all. Britain’s insistence on maintaining its prerogatives over EU state aid, fishing rights, and the Northern Ireland border led to Johnson’s introducing the UK internal market bill in the UK Parliament, which would give the UK government the right to unilaterally determine the

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s zeal over asserting British sovereignty in Brexit negotiations has not only torpedoed the talks over Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. It has also increased the likelihood of the worst possible long-term relationship with the EU and Ireland while almost certainly destroying prospects for a trade agreement with the United States. And it has raised the possibility of the most sweeping and disruptive “no deal” Brexit by year’s end, with no agreement on anything at all.

Britain’s insistence on maintaining its prerogatives over EU state aid, fishing rights, and the Northern Ireland border led to Johnson’s introducing the UK internal market bill in the UK Parliament, which would give the UK government the right to unilaterally determine the rules on trade flows between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

The Northern Ireland border was always the most fraught issue because of its potential to undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which guarantees an open Irish border. It is a totemic matter of principle for the EU, which had insisted that the border issue be resolved ahead of any trade negotiations. And through the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement, the EU insisted that the open border be guaranteed on an international treaty level, ensuring its survival even if no future trading arrangement is agreed between the EU and UK.

By threatening to abrogate UK commitments made less than a year ago, Johnson struck at perhaps the most politically sensitive issue for the EU in the entire Brexit process. Brussels’ forceful response was all but guaranteed. If Britain proceeds with unilaterally changing trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK, the EU would be compelled to set up physical barriers to control the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Such a step would directly threaten local peace and stability.

The EU has demanded that the UK withdraw Johnson’s bill by the end of September 2020 or risk a legal procedure and the collapse of trade negotiations. The implications go beyond Johnson’s preference for a “no deal” Brexit.

The EU will certainly not back down from the issue. It will not  resume Brexit negotiations until the border issue is resolved in a way that avoids raising physical barriers. The principle of Pacta Sunt Servenda (“agreements must be kept”) in international law is axiomatic for the EU, ruling out any potential “mini deals” that do not address this larger issue first. The risk of potentially rekindling violence in Northern Ireland is a deal-breaker for the EU, making the hardest possible version of “no deal” Brexit more likely on January 1, 2021.

As for the already slim prospects for a US-UK free trade agreement, US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has made  very clear that the Good Friday accord must not be jeopardized. That is why Johnson’s dash for British sovereignty has poisoned economic and political relations with the UK’s two largest international trading partners and traditional political allies in Europe and the United States.

The new bill focusing on granting London full sovereign rights to do as it pleases on any UK internal trade issue further grants the UK government the right to spend freely on a host of infrastructure and social issues, including those formally devolved to regional governments in Scotland and Wales. Edinburgh and Cardiff are not likely to look kindly on what they view as a centralizing power grab by Johnson.

Johnson may even have a fight on his hands within his own party, despite its large parliamentary majority, to get his new legislation through the House of Commons. Many Conservative members of parliament, including former prime minister Theresa May, instinctively oppose breaching UK international law commitments.

Boris Johnson will get Brexit done, though—increasingly likely—in the most damaging political and economic form.

Jacob Funk Kirkegaard
Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, senior fellow, has been associated with the Institute since 2002. Before joining the Institute, he worked with the Danish Ministry of Defense, the United Nations in Iraq, and in the private financial sector. He is a graduate of the Danish Army's Special School of Intelligence and Linguistics with the rank of first lieutenant; the University of Aarhus in Aarhus, Denmark; the Columbia University in New York; and received his PhD from Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies.

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