The bill presented to the House of Commons on Wednesday is primarily about ensuring market access across the UK after Brexit.
e always knew it was going to be controversial. It gives powers to Westminster, or more specifically to Ministers of the Crown, that directly impinge on the competence of the devolved regions and nations. Ministers in Scotland and Wales have vocally denounced what they see as a brazen ‘power grab’.
What we didn’t expect was for the bill to spark alarm across the EU and across the Atlantic. Why such a reaction? Because of what it is attempting to do when it comes to the Northern Ireland/Ireland Protocol.
Northern Ireland was always going to be awkward for the UK internal market. The Protocol means that nothing is to enter or be on sale here unless it meets EU standards, even if it comes from GB. There is nothing in this UK internal market bill to prevent a so-called ‘race to the bottom’.
And if goods from there don’t come up to measure, they are not meant to be here. To be fair, these are the standards we currently hold to and there is little clamour from consumers to see a reduction in those standards. But it does make that UK ‘market access’ promise a little lopsided.
This bill does not change that situation. It does say, though, that the UK authorities implementing the Protocol should show ‘special regard’ for NI’s ‘integral place in the UK internal market’ as they do so. But if such special regard extends as far as turning a blind eye, Northern Ireland will be considered a risk for the EU (which, put simply, will be bad for the NI ‘brand’) and the UK will find itself in breach of international law…
Mind you, this is apparently no longer a ‘No-No’ for this government. Hence the consternation from Brussels and backbenchers alike.
This bill contains provisions that are to have effect even if they are (to quote section 45) ‘inconsistent and incompatible with international or other domestic law’. The specific law it intends to ‘disapply’ is the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement – the one approved by a stomping majority in the Commons at the end of January.
In theory, Brandon Lewis could find himself one of the most powerful men in Europe. The Secretary of State for NI would have the powers to ignore any EU requirements for paperwork for goods moving from NI into Great Britain. And, secondly, he could act to reduce the scope of EU state aid rules applying through the Protocol, including averting their application in GB. You can probably guess which is the power the UK government is most keen to exercise – and at such risk, including reputational.
This 52 page bill has reached heights of controversy that are immense even in Brexit terms. Even though the parliamentary timetable will be tight, it will surely not become law without considerable amendment.
In the meantime, the one thing most hoped for from this bill – certainty – has become an even more distant prospect.
Professor Katy Hayward (Queen’s University Belfast) is Senior Fellow in the UK in a Changing Europe think tank