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Where is the troublesome Internal Market Bill at?

An amendment this week means there will need to be a House of Commons vote before the powers are implemented.

Image: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

THE INTERNAL MARKET Bill arrived with a thud, but may have petered out of the headlines since, despite significant developments with it this week.

As a quick recap: the UK and EU negotiating teams are locked in tense trade negotiations, which appear as though they could collapse at any moment over any of the three main obstacles of State aid rules, fisheries, or an agreed dispute mechanism.

As these trade talks stumble towards the end – with the final scheduled talks due in the next two weeks – the UK introduced a Bill that could derail the whole process. The Internal Market Bill.

The UK has been harshly criticised by former British Prime ministers, EU figures, as well as senior US politicians for proposing a domestic bill that would break an international treaty (with the same countries you’re trying to negotiate a new deal with in a tight timeframe, too).

Although Irish government is concerned by these developments - as Minister Simon Coveney showed in a fiery exchange with Andrew Marr - the approach to this Bill is to sit back and see what happens with it as it passes through the House of Commons and House of Lords.

What it says

The draft law is intended to ensure free trade across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland after Brexit.

But it would give a British minister the power to unilaterally regulate UK State aid within Northern Ireland – a violation of the Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement which says it must liaise with the EU over any State aid that needs to be awarded.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis admitted in the House of Commons that the bill “does break international law in a very specific and limited way”.

Johnson says the powers are needed only if the EU goes through with threats to impose custom and regulatory checks on certain types of trade going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Johnson famously called checks on live animal and agri-food products going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland a food ‘blockade’ – but the Irish government has repeatedly corrected this. 

As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney said: “What is agreed in the Withdrawal Agreement and in the Protocol is that there will be limited checks on goods coming from GB into Northern Ireland, because there is an agreement to prevent the need for physical border infrastructure on the island of Ireland.”

What happened this week

This week, MPs proposed amendments to the Internal Markets Bill. One, proposed by the British government’s backbench MPs, was passed.

The only difference it makes would be to give MPs the power to approve the date on which these powers to override the Withdrawal Agreement come into effect (MPs love emphasising the power of Parliament versus the government of the day).

Coveney has already said that this amendment is not enough to ease Ireland’s and the European Union’s concerns, and wants the full implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement before any EU-UK trade treaty is signed.

Senior Tory MP Bob Neill, who led the threatened rebellion of Tory MPs who oppose the bill, said the new amendment, which would restrict the powers’ use, made “the best of a bad job”.

“It’s not where I wanted to be, but in the interests of the country it’s right that we do get a proper functioning, working set of rules to enhance and improve the internal market within the UK,” he said during Tuesday’s debate.

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On Thursday, Attorney General Suella Braverman was quizzed over her approval of the Bill, and called her Opposition counterpart unpatriotic, “emotional” and “illogical” for suggesting otherwise.

What happens next

The bill will now receive further debate in the Commons early next week, ahead of a vote on Tuesday on whether it should progress to the upper House of Lords for weeks of scrutiny there before becoming law.

There is some suggestion that the Bill could be stalled, and left suspended in the process awaiting the outcome of the trade negotiations.

If the British team get what they want from trade negotiations, particularly around State aid, they’ll most likely withdraw the bill. If they don’t, the threat remains on the table (like Johnson’s favoured sword-of-Damocles metaphor).

The EU has demanded Britain withdraw the clauses in the bill that conflict with the Withdrawal Agreement or it could face legal action, and Minister Simon Coveney has said there will be no trade agreement while the threat of that Bill remains.

- with reporting from AFP

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