Boris Johnson's Brexit withdrawal edits risks trade deal with Trump, says ex-UK ambassador to US

‘You really can’t unilaterally rewrite an international agreement’ says Sir Kim Darroch

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Wednesday 09 September 2020 15:31 BST
Kim Darroch: 'The idea that you could re-write your part of the agreement is just unacceptable'

Flouting international law to unilaterally rewrite the Brexit withdrawal agreement will jeopardise Boris Johnson’s ability to negotiate a free trade deal with America, the former UK ambassador to the US has warned.

It comes after Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis conceded in the House of Commons that government proposals to backtrack on the deal if talks with Brussels collapse were unlawful in a “very specific and limited way”.

Sir Kim Darroch, the UK’s representative in Washington between 2016 and 2019, said a move to violate the agreement with the EU was “unacceptable”.

“You really can’t unilaterally rewrite an international agreement,” he told BBC Newsnight. “We just don’t do that. First of all I think that it risks the Good Friday Agreement peace settlement in Northern Ireland, if you end up having to impose some sort of hard border.

“Second I think it blows the chance of a UK-EU free trade deal. Michel Barnier has already made that clear and the Irish government has made it clear.”

He added: “Third, I think it potentially also puts a UK-US free trade deal as risk.”

Mr Darroch referenced a visit to London in August 2019 from Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, who said there would be “no chance” of a trade agreement between the two countries if the Good Friday Agreement is put in jeopardy.

“She came across to London about 18 months ago and said if there were an outcome on Brexit in which the Irish government wasn’t happy, particularly one that puts the Good Friday Agreement at risk, we Democrats would block a free trade deal in the House of Representatives, which they can do: they have a majority at the moment,” Sir Kim said.

“Obviously they could lose it in the November election, but not many observers think that is likely. So you could have a free trade deal could even be negotiated by a Republican president and get blocked in the House of Representatives.”

After Mr Lewis’s comments in the Commons on Tuesday, Anthony Bilnken, the chief foreign policy adviser of the Democratic nominee for US president, posted on his Twitter account: “Joe Biden is committed to preserving the hard-earned peace & stability in Northern Ireland.

“As the UK and EU work out their relationship, any arrangements must protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the return of a hard border.”

Christine Jardine, the Liberal Democrat trade spokesperson, told The Independent the government had “itself to be untrustworthy to the core”, but added: “Ministers’ readiness to trash the UK’s reputation by reneging on international treaties marks a new low.”

She said: “It is laughable to think countries will be queuing up to negotiate new trade deals with the UK given this government’s complete disregard for international commitments. The US has made crystal clear that it will not tolerate the UK negotiating in bad faith – what self-respecting nation would?

“Boris Johnson must change course or he risks making the UK a pariah on the world stage. If he cannot put the national interest first, he is not fit to be prime minister.”

Appearing in the Commons on Tuesday, former prime minister Theresa May also warned the threat to backtrack on aspect of the EU withdrawal agreement could damage Britain’s reputation abroad and insisted the government needed to “reassure” other countries it would stand by its word in future agreements.

PM says legislations provides ‘legal safety net’ to protect against ‘extreme or irrational interpretations' of the Northern Ireland provisions
PM says legislations provides ‘legal safety net’ to protect against ‘extreme or irrational interpretations' of the Northern Ireland provisions (PRU/AFP via Getty Images)

Her comments were echoed by Tobias Ellwood, a Conservative MP who chairs the Commons Defence Committee said breaching international law would mean the UK would “lose the moral high ground” in regards to issues raised with China and Russia.

On future trade agreements being brokered, he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “Also we speak of global Britain, how can we convince other states to sign up to agreements in the future if they doubt our trust at this moment?”

Addressing the issue at prime minister’s questions, Mr Johnson defended the legislation to override the EU withdrawal agreement in the UK Internal Market Bill, which was published on Wednesday afternoon. He said it provided a “legal safety net” to protect against "extreme or irrational interpretations" of the Northern Ireland provisions of the agreement which could lead to the creation of "a border down the Irish Sea".

However, the EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen said she was “very concerned” about the comments from the British government to override key parts of the agreement . “This would break international law and undermines trust,” she said. “Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations.”

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