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UK plan to break law over Brexit deal prompts exasperation at home and abroad

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted in the U.K. Parliament that Boris Johnson’s government is prepared to break international law | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Downing Street’s willingness to break international law triggers backlash in the UK and US as Brussels is on high alert.

Politicians across the U.K. and EU reacted with dismay to Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis acknowledging that the British government’s new Brexit plans would break international law in a “very specific and limited way.”

The controversial Internal Market Bill, set to be published later on Wednesday, would amend parts of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement — struck with the EU last year — relating to Northern Ireland and state aid.

“We need to be prepared,” Franck Riester, France’s junior trade minister, told a radio broadcast on Wednesday morning, adding: “We need to make sure that our British partners respect their commitments.”

In Brussels, European Parliament President David Sassoli warned the U.K. not to go back on its word or else suffer the consequences. “On the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement, trust and credibility are key,” he said in a video statement released overnight.

“We fully expect the U.K. to honor the commitments that it negotiated and signed up to last year, especially with regard to citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland … Any attempts by the U.K. to undermine the agreement would have serious consequences,” he added.

Earlier, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen had made similar remarks, saying she “trusts” the British government to implement the Withdrawal Agreement.

On Tuesday, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney said that after approaching the British government over reports that it was planning to break international law, he was even more concerned than before.

“Rather than being reassured, my concerns have been exacerbated by additional comments deliberately made in the House of Commons today – openly committing the U.K. government to legislate to break international law in relation to the Withdrawal Agreement,” he told Irish MPs, referring to Lewis’ remarks.

The bill also prompted anger in the capitals of the U.K.’s devolved nations, which fear that it is not only designed to wrest certain powers from Brussels but also to undermine the decentralization of powers from London to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast.

Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon described the planned Internal Market Bill as “a full frontal assault on devolution” in a tweet Wednesday morning.

Jeremy Miles, the Welsh minister for European transition, claimed the government in Westminster is planning to “sacrifice the future of the union by stealing power from devolved administrations.”

“This bill is an attack on democracy,” he said, adding: “Vital decisions over support for Welsh businesses … should be made in Wales, by the government of Wales.” Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford called the bill an “enormous power grab” on Times Radio Wednesday morning.

Warnings also came from across the Atlantic early on Wednesday. Joe Biden’s foreign policy adviser Antony Blinken tweeted that the U.S. Democrat presidential candidate “is committed to preserving the hard-earned peace & stability in Northern Ireland.” (Biden is Irish-American.) And Democrat Richard Neal, chairman of the House of Representatives ways and means committee, said: “I urge both sides to uphold the terms of this joint agreement, particularly with respect to the treatment of Northern Ireland, in accordance with international law.”

Lewis’ comments also stirred unease within the ruling Conservative Party.

Tory MP Bob Neill, chair of the justice committee, on Tuesday called the notion of breaking the law “very troubling,” tweeting that “a willingness to break international law sits ill for a country that has always prided itself on upholding the rule of law.”

Former British Prime Minister Theresa May echoed Neill’s remarks. “How can the government reassure future international partners that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” she said.

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