How ‘limited and specific’ law-breaking could cost the UK’s reputation and trade hopes

Boris Johnson’s decision to change Brexit rules has foreign powers questioning how they do business with Britain

Boris Johnson
Boris Johnson’s decision to change Brexit rules has foreign powers questioning how they do business with Britain
(Image credit: Peter Summers/Getty Images)

As a former foreign secretary with a history of misspeaking at key moments, Boris Johnson should be more aware than most of how his actions are interpreted abroad.

But the prime minister appears to have been caught off guard by the hostile international reaction to his leaked plan to row back on elements of the Brexit withdrawal agreement - a strategy that Northern Ireland Minister Brandon Lewis has admitted breaks the law in a “specific but limited way”.

Senior Democrats in the US have warned Johnson that reneging on the treaty could “hobble bilateral relations” should Joe Biden win the presidency in November, The Guardian reports. So could Downing Street’s bid to bolsters its Brexit position end up costing both the UK’s reputation and hopes of securing future trade deals with nations worldwide?

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Biden our time

The Irish-American presidential candidate is a staunch defender of the Good Friday Agreement, which Downing Street says Johnson is seeking to preserve through “limited clarifications” to the withdrawal agreement.

Biden’s chief policy adviser, Antony Blinken, tweeted yesterday that the presidential hopeful is “committed to preserving the hard-earned peace & stability in Northern Ireland” and that any arrangements between the UK and EU “must protect the Good Friday Agreement and prevent the return of a hard border”.

The Guardian reports that “people close to” Biden have warned that anything that puts the 1998 peace deal at risk “would present a major impediment to a close relationship between London and Washington in the event of a Biden presidency”.

Democratic Congressman Richard Neal - who as chair of the House Ways and Means Committee would have influence over the ratification of any trade deal - told the newspaper that he “can’t imagine that we could develop a bilateral trade relationship if there was any return to a hard border”.

“Joe Biden shares my position on this issue entirely,” Neal added.

Matter of trust

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (pictured top with Johnson) “has threatened to not do business with Britain if ‘trust’ is broken by the UK reneging on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement”, The Telegraph reports.

Meanwhile, the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said that honouring the treaty was “a precondition for confidence between us because everything that has been signed in the past must be respected”.

The comments are a warning shot to Johnson, but according to The Guardian, diplomatic sources in the US have suggested that “the UK government might not have fully thought through the ramifications of its abrupt announcement”.

Having been “taken aback by the pushback in Washington”, Downing Street may now be waking up to the full gravity of reneging on an international treaty, says the newspaper.

In an article for The Spectator, political commentator Nick Tyrone argues that “threatening to back out of an existing international treaty in the hopes of getting a further international treaty agreed is madness”, and asks: “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,” Tyrone adds.

Johnson’s decision could also weaken Britain’s hand when it comes to holding foreign powers accountable for their own wrongdoing.

New Statesman international editor Jeremy Cliffe tweets that the “specific but limited” law-breaking could increase the likelihood to future scenarios in which current US leader Donald Trump suggests “NHS protections in trade deal never made sense”, or with China arguing that “‘One country, two systems’ never made sense”.

If Downing Street was as surprised by the international backlash to the treaty revisions as it appears to have been by the leaking of the Internal Markets Bill to the Financial Times, the government might now be reassessing its tactics.

As The Times’ Rachel Sylvester warned yesterday, “the prime minister’s no-deal brinkmanship is damaging Britain’s reputation abroad just when we need new allies”.

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