Boris Johnson has set himself on a collision course with US President-elect Joe Biden after vowing to overcome a massive defeat at the House of Lords and to push a Brexit bill in violation of international law.
Peers voted 433 to 165 on Monday evening to remove clauses in the Internal Market Act that would allow ministers to override parts of the EU withdrawal agreement. It was one of the heaviest government defeats in the House of Lords in recent years.
Mr Biden has warned the bill could jeopardize a delicate post-Brexit deal for Northern Ireland. He has told Mr Johnson to forget the prospect of a UK-US trade deal if it destabilizes the peace process.
But Mr Johnson immediately signaled that he would press ahead with legislation and overturn the Lords decision when the bill returns to the House of Commons in December – unless the UK agrees to a free trade agreement with the EU in the meantime.
“We are disappointed that the House of Lords voted to remove clauses from the UK Single Market Act, which the House of Commons supported by 340 votes to 256 and which fulfills a clear commitment to the Conservative Manifesto,” said a government spokesman.
“We will withdraw these clauses when the bill returns to the Commons. We have made it clear over and over that the clauses provide a legal safety net to protect the integrity of the UK internal market and the tremendous benefits of the peace process. “
But Angela Smith, Leader of Labor in the Lords, said ignoring the will of the House of Lords would “underestimate the real and grave concerns across the UK and beyond that ministers transgress the rule of law”.
Mr Johnson’s stance was denounced Monday by former Tory leaders. John Major, the former Prime Minister of Tory, said the bill, which ministers admit violates international law, was “unprecedented in our entire history”.
Meanwhile, Michael Howard, the former Conservative leader of the Eurosceptics, criticized the ministers for whom he said the circumstances made it “expedient” to violate international law. “Isn’t that the excuse of law breakers everywhere?” he said.
Mr Johnson argues that the controversial clauses in the bill are needed as a “safety net” in case the EU interprets the take-back agreement to impose a hard trade border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
However, the Prime Minister’s critics claim that the repeal of the Northern Ireland Protocol – a carefully crafted text – would move a proposed trade border and related controls from the Irish Sea to the island of Ireland.
Mr Biden has rejected any move by Mr Johnson that could undermine the Northern Ireland Peace Process and the Good Friday Agreement.
In September he tweeted: “Any US-UK trade deal must be made conditional on compliance with the deal and preventing the return of a hard border. Period.”
Mr Biden’s emotional commitment to maintaining an open Irish border was evident in January when he was asked for comment by a BBC reporter and replied, “BBC? I am Irish.”
Although Mr Johnson welcomed Mr Biden’s victory in the U.S. presidential election, he has not asked Donald Trump to admit defeat, nor has he spoken to the winner.
“It is not my job to comment on it, but I would like to clearly congratulate President-elect Biden,” he said at a press conference on Downing Street.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier will go to the business department in London with members of the EU delegation on Monday for talks © Getty Images
The hope in London and Brussels is that the dispute over the internal market accounts can be settled by both sides who agree on a free trade agreement in the coming days. However, the talks, which resumed Monday in London, remain stalled.
Mr Johnson’s hand was strengthened on Monday when Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland’s first minister and leader of the Democratic Union Party, and Michelle O’Neill, deputy first minister and vice-president of Sinn Féin, called for “goodwill and pragmatism” on both sides to avoid a hard border in the Irish Sea.
In a letter to Maros Sefcovic, Vice-President of the European Commission, Northern Ireland leaders urged Brussels not to over-zealous health screening of food and plants coming into the region from the rest of the UK.
They warned of the risk to “the continuity of the supply of our market with existing food and other products” and stated that the Northern Ireland Protocol “should have as little impact as possible on the daily lives of communities in Ireland and Northern Ireland”. .
Michel Barnier, EU chief negotiator, and David Frost, his UK counterpart, are expected to continue talks on a trade deal through Thursday, although they are expected to extend them until the end of the week.
A UK official said it was unclear whether pending disputes on issues such as fishing rights and so-called level playing field to ensure fair business competition would be resolved, but that the “final” could take place next week.
In Brussels, some EU officials are examining the possibility of extending the talks. The European Parliament is looking into the possibility of holding a virtual meeting at the end of December to sign a trade agreement between the EU and the UK.
The last planned plenary session of Parliament in 2020 is currently taking place in the week of December 14th. However, alternative dates will not be considered until the week of December 28th.
However, there are limits to how much additional time can be freed up for negotiators if the agreement is processed and ratified by the EU this year.
An EU official suggested postponing plenary negotiations as late as possible to December so that negotiations can continue until the end of November, but not much beyond that.
Although Mr Johnson’s allies insist that Mr Biden’s election did not change the political dynamics of the trade deals, it has created a new risk for the Prime Minister if he walks away without an agreement.
Britain would enter 2021 with a broken relationship with the EU and face the anger of the new US president who sees Brexit as a grave geopolitical mistake.
And if Mr Johnson insisted on getting his Single Market bill through, he could be branded as an international lawbreaker in a year Britain seeks to build global collaboration as host of G7 climate change and UN COP26 summit.