LONDON (AP) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s attempt to tear up parts of the post-Brexit trade deal he has signed with the European Union has cleared its first hurdle in Parliament, despite warnings from opponents that the move is illegal.
Lawmakers late Monday voted 295 to 221 to be the first to approve a bill that would allow UK officials to rewrite Northern Ireland’s trade rules. The vote paves the way for an in-depth review of the bill in the coming weeks.
If approved, the law would remove controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, scrapping parts of a trade deal Johnson signed before Britain left the EU in 2020.
The UK government says the rules known as the Northern Ireland Protocol are burdening businesses and undermining peace in Northern Ireland. The unilateral step is justified under international law because of the “real exceptional situation”.
Johnson’s opponents – including his predecessor Theresa May – say the move is illegal and that it will seriously damage Britain’s international reputation as “a country that keeps its word”.
“As a patriot, I would not want to do anything that would belittle this country in the eyes of the world,” May told parliament.
“I must tell the government that, in my view, this bill is not legal under international law,” she added. “It will fall short of its objectives and will diminish the UK’s standing in the eyes of the world and I cannot support it.”
The EU has threatened retaliation against the UK if it goes ahead with its plan to rewrite the rules of the post-Brexit deal, raising the prospect of a trade war between the two main economic partners.
Johnson said Monday he believes the plan could become law by the end of the year if Parliament cooperates. The government wants to rush the bill through parliament before lawmakers go on their summer break.
Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK that borders an EU country, Ireland. When Britain left the European Union and its borderless free trade area, both sides agreed to keep Ireland’s land border free of customs posts and other controls, as an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in northern Ireland.
Instead, to protect the EU’s internal market, some goods such as meat and eggs entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK will be controlled
Johnson’s Conservative government claims overzealous implementation by the EU means the rules are not working as expected and are causing a political crisis in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland’s main trade union party has refused to return to the region’s power-sharing government until Brexit customs controls are scrapped or significantly changed. Its leaders argue that commodity controls threaten ties between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK because they have effectively created an internal British trade border.
The party’s stance has left Northern Ireland without a functioning government for months.
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