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U.K. admits it could break international law over Brexit as senior Democrats raise trade deal fears

A U.K. minister said the country would be prepared to “break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
Image: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson waves as he leaves 10 Downing Street in central London
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson's latest Brexit trade plans have drawn criticism after his government admitted they break international law.Niklas Halle'n / AFP - Getty Images

LONDON — The United Kingdom has come under fire at home and abroad for saying it is prepared to break international law by breaching the terms of a treaty governing its departure from the European Union.

And senior Democrats have warned that the U.K.’s actions on Brexit could jeopardize hopes for a free trade deal with the U.S., in the event of a Joe Biden victory in November’s presidential election, because of fears over the effect on the Northern Ireland peace process.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-California, said Wednesday that if the United Kingdom thwarts international law and the peace process chances of Congress passing a trade agreement with the U.K. would be nil.

Brandon Lewis, the minister for Northern Ireland, confirmed to Parliament on Tuesday that the government would be willing to “break international law in a very specific and limited way” by ignoring the terms of a U.K.-E.U. withdrawal agreement signed last year, if the two sides can't reach a free trade agreement in the coming weeks.

His admission followed the resignation Tuesday of Jonathan Jones, the government's top lawyer.

The 2019 withdrawal agreement gave Northern Ireland the same trade rules and standards as the E.U. to prevent customs checks being required at the land border with the Irish Republic, a crucial element of the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Ireland after decades of sectarian violence.

However, the U.K. government plans to rewrite sections of the agreement that guarantee an open Irish border, in new legislation being introduced Wednesday — leading some to express fears for the future of the peace process.

The U.K's long-running Brexit saga is moving into a key phase as Prime Minister Boris Johnson tries to sign a free trade agreement with the E.U.

A transition agreement between the two sides, which allows frictionless movement of goods and people, runs out on Dec. 31. Boris Johnson has pledged to walk away from the talks if a trade deal with the EU isn’t reached by October 15.

Talks between the E.U. and U.K. have become fractious in recent weeks and ministers insist the new Irish provisions are only an insurance policy to be used in the event of a “no deal” outcome.

Image: Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks in Wilmington, Del.
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden would look unfavorably on the return of a 'hard border' on the island of Ireland, senior democrats have suggested. Carolyn Kaster / AP

Senior Democrats have warned that any move that could jeopardize the peace process on the island of Ireland would be viewed very unfavorably by a possible Biden administration and could endanger the chances of a bilateral trade deal — a cornerstone of the U.K. government’s policy on post Brexit trade.

Antony Blinken, Biden’s foreign policy advisor, said on Twitter that the candidate was “committed to preserving the hard-earned peace & stability in Northern Ireland” and that “any arrangements must protect the Good Friday Agreement.”

Richard Neal, chair of the House ways and means committee — which would have influence on ratifying any agreed trade deal between the U.S. and U.K. — released a statement urging the U.K. to uphold the terms of the withdrawal agreement "in accordance with international law" and warned that "any U.S.-U.K. trade agreement must preserve the Good Friday Agreement, which has maintained peace and prosperity for British and European peoples since 1998."

“I can’t imagine that we could develop a bilateral trade relationship if there was any return to a hard border,” he said, adding that Joe Biden is in full agreement with him on that position.

Calling the Good Friday Agreement a "bedrock of peace" for the region, Pelosi warned the United Kingdom to honor its agreements with the Northern Irish people and the European Union.

"The U.K. must respect the Northern Ireland Protocol as signed with the EU to ensure the free flow of goods across the border," she said in a statement.

“If the U.K. violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.-U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress," she said. "The Good Friday Agreement is treasured by the American people and will be proudly defended in the United States Congress.”

Criticism of the U.K.’s approach has poured in from opposition figures, E.U. partners and even from members of Johnson’s own Conservative party.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May — still a sitting lawmaker — warned that the U.K. risked eroding the ability of international partners to trust the country.

Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, called the British position an "unwise way to proceed", while Ursula von der Leyen, president of the E.U. Commission, tweeted to remind Britain of its obligations "under international law."

Kim Darroch, the U.K.’s former ambassador to Washington, told the BBC’s Newsnight program that he “wasn’t surprised to see a government lawyer resign” as sticking to international agreements is something the U.K. is supposed to stand for.