Brexit talks continue in the United Kingdom, as the House of Commons passed a controversial new bill that revises certain elements of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. But despite the bill’s passage, there was widespread discord in the British Parliament. Even members of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party opposed the contentious amendment.
Northern Ireland Protocol
The UK officially left the European Union on January 31 of this year, when both parties signed a withdrawal agreement that has since become an international treaty. A key part of that treaty is known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, which aims to prevent a hard international border between Ireland, an EU member state, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the United Kingdom.
But the controversial Internal Market Bill, which Johnson’s government passed on Monday, seeks to amend parts of that agreement when it comes to the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. It also allows the UK to reinterpret “state aid” regulations on subsidies for firms in Northern Ireland. Just last week, Cabinet Minister Brandon Lewis warned that the bill might break international law. Johnson, however, insists that its passage is crucial to the UK maintaining its autonomy from Europe.
“What we cannot tolerate now is a situation where our EU counterparts seriously believe they have the power to break up our country,” Johnson addressed Members of Parliament. “We cannot have a situation where the very boundaries of our country can be dictated to by a foreign power or international organization.”
The vote on Monday night came after five hours of open debate on the Commons floor, initiated by Johnson himself.
“In recent months, the EU has suggested that it is willing to go to extreme and unreasonable lengths … to exert leverage against the UK in our negotiations for a free-trade agreement,” Johnson said. Defending the new law, he argued that “the intention of this bill is clearly to stop any such use of the stick against this country.”
Meanwhile, Labour MP Ed Miliband, the former Leader of the Opposition who stood in as lead questioner, lambasted Johnson and his government’s “incompetence” and “failure of governance.” In bending international law to benefit the UK’s trade advantage, Miliband accused Johnson of “trashing the reputation of this country and trashing the reputation of his office.” He summed up what he viewed as the Prime Minister’s hypocrisy by saying, “there is one rule for the British public and another rule for this government.”
Johnson left the chamber while Miliband spoke, with some witnesses claiming that the Prime Minister looked visibly uncomfortable. Regardless, the measure passed, with 340 votes for and 263 against. Several Conservative MPs who disapproved of the bill, but feared retribution from the Prime Minister, abstained from voting.