Like most things Brexit related, it depends on who you believe. The EU is concerned over the announcement that the government will be introducing legislation that could override portions of the Withdrawal Agreement, in particular the Northern Ireland Protocol. The UK government insists that the changes they wish to introduce are ‘limited and reasonable’ and will not violate the treaty. I truly hope it is our government which is right here. If Boris really is planning to violate the Withdrawal Agreement, signed with the EU earlier this year, that would be a grave error.
The logic of threatening the European Union with legislation that changes portions of the Withdrawal Agreement could be to send a message. ‘If you don’t give us the deal we want, we will renege on the agreement we signed earlier this year. Watch us – we are crazy enough to do it.’ However, it should be pointed out that threatening to back out of an existing international treaty in the hopes of getting a further international treaty agreed is madness, particularly when the two agreements involved have the exact same co-signatory. Why would a threat to undo what little has already been assented to with the EU cause them to cave into demands concerning a much more comprehensive agreement? In other words, why would they trust the UK government to abide by the rules of the new treaty when they clearly aren’t willing to follow those set out by the previous one?
That brings us neatly onto a much bigger problem reneging on any part of the Withdrawal Agreement involves – why would any possible trading partner in future trust what the UK government says if it breaks an international treaty with the EU? This is precisely why countries don’t go around breaking international agreements – you would be announcing to the world that any treaty you enter into isn’t worth the paper it is written on. At a time when the UK is looking to enter into a plethora of new international arrangements having left the European Union, it should be obvious why this is a terrible idea. Now more than ever, the United Kingdom needs to be building trust with new partners on the basis that the country will do exact what it promises to do.
If the international reasons for sticking to the letter of the EU Withdrawal Agreement were not enough, there are internal, UK-based grounds for not breaking with any part of the treaty as well; reasons that go to the heart of what democracy is in the UK, which given how central this has been to the whole Brexit debate since June 2016, is worth considering on its own. The implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, with the Northern Ireland protocol included, was the key promise of the entire Conservative Party 2019 general election campaign. It was, if you will recall, the ‘oven ready deal’ that was talked about endlessly by the prime minister during that period. The Tories achieved an overwhelming majority off the back of swearing to get the Withdrawal Agreement signed. Call me old fashioned and terribly small c-conservative, but I think the key promises a government makes on the way to a parliamentary majority should be honoured. I think the vast majority of the British public agree with me on this one. Remember the Lib Dems breaking their pledge on tuition fees? This would be far worse in pure democratic terms as it involves the entire future direction of the country as a whole.
If the Tories want to walk away from the table with the EU with no deal, that is their prerogative. That does nothing to change the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, which constitutes a signed international agreement. Talking about how you have a different interpretation of the treaty, or that Boris Johnson’s understanding of it is not the same as what the EU is saying about it, do not constitute reasons to deviate from the agreement that will avoid resulting in disaster for the United Kingdom. In the midst of huge disagreements between the UK and EU regarding the future relationship between the two entities, only one thing is certain at this point: the Withdrawal Agreement has been signed into law. It is a legal document which is clear in what it lays out. It also happens to be the basis for the Conservative majority in parliament as it exists, given to the party less than a year ago.
I don’t like the Withdrawal Agreement myself and voted against it when I had a chance in December. Yet the country as a whole voted for it, so like the referendum result in 2016, it must now be honoured. The Withdrawal Agreement – and with it, the NI Protocol – are facts of life Downing Street cannot bluff its way out of.
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