I would like to thank the many constituents who have taken the time to get in touch after the recent introduction of the UK Internal Market Bill and I do hope that you will find this update useful.
I should start by saying that this (like much else at present) is a fast-moving and fluid situation. We saw a meeting of the UK and EU negotiating teams last week and these conversations are ongoing. It’s worth saying from the outset (especially given the febrile nature of debate in the last week) that the UK Internal Market Bill does not itself break international law. If it passes through Parliament (and I expect a substantial number of amendments to be tabled both in the Commons and Lords during next week’s debates), it would give the UK government the ability to disapply specific elements of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the movement of goods between Northern Ireland and the UK mainland in the event of a ‘No-Deal’ scenario. While the use of that power to disapply would be illegal, simply conferring the power to do so is not. The European Commission has made clear that they do not believe a breach of international law has taken place as things stand – and any changes to that guidance will be contingent upon the final form of the Bill as it receives Royal Assent.
That may seem a somewhat academic point – but it’s important given the diplomatic backdrop. The clauses that have aroused the most controversy are designed to mitigate against the risk of – in the event of no deal being agreed by the end of the transition period – an extreme interpretation of the NI Protocols in the Withdrawal Agreement which would hamper the free movement of agricultural and consumer goods between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. And of course, such a scenario would cripple many businesses in Northern Ireland at a time when they are managing the economic devastation resulting from COVID-19. It would also imperil the constitutional integrity of the UK – something that would inflame tensions and risk a return to the terrible violence we’ve seen in the past. I believe that the central principles of the Internal Market Bill are sound – which is why I voted in favour this week. These central principles include mutual recognition and non-discrimination for goods and services across the UK, establishing an independent Office for the Internal Market (within the Competitions and Markets Authority) and ensuring that the economic coherence of the UK is maintained.
So as part of the Internal Market Bill, the government have included a clause which would allow them, in the event of a ‘No-Deal’ exit, to protect the constitutional and fiscal coherence of the UK. It is a safety net that would only need to be used if firstly, no trade deal emerges before December (which is not a scenario I would welcome or for which I believe the government is working) and secondly, should the EU subsequently choose to interpret the NI Protocols in the Withdrawal Agreement in such a way as to create barriers to the free trade of goods between NI and the rest of the UK.
I actually believe that to be relatively unlikely (though is theoretically possible) and that much of what we’re seeing (on both sides – as with the EU’s suggestion that they may create such barriers between the UK and NI) is designed to create leverage in negotiations. I have been looking at likely amendments as they are proposed and do believe there to be a case for adding an obligation for the government to seek parliamentary approval before such powers are used – and I’ll be working to ensure that viewpoint is reflected in the Bill’s final form.
I’m conscious that even as I’m writing this, much of it will be superseded by events – but I do hope it’s useful in clarifying the current situation as it stands.