Criticism of the government’s Internal Market Bill has been loud and vocal this week. Aside from feigned moral outrage over the supposed deception entailed by protecting the integrity of the Union, several more serious potential objections have been levelled at the bill. Firstly, that it might lead to the collapse of negotiations with the EU over a future trade deal. Secondly, that it will lead to a Britain receiving a reputation as a ‘Perfidious Albion’ and thus make future agreements with other partners harder. Thirdly, it will jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement, threatening local stability and alienating the powerful Irish lobby in the US.
As regards the talks, the EU has certainly threatened this prospect, but the fact is that it is unlikely to abandon negotiations while it still wants a deal, and while it realises that shutting down negotiations might simply precipitate the collapse of the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement altogether. Even if talks do cease, as we’ve outlined before an Australia-style relationship in the event of a WTO-Brexit is a perfectly reasonable outcome. To the second, this furore hasn’t stopped the government from signing its deal with Japan, or making good progress with joining the TPP. As our allies realise, there is a world of difference between the average trade agreement between sovereign nations covering the removal of tariffs and accreditation of services, and a thrown-together treaty replete with ambiguities of interpretation which encroaches on core areas of national sovereignty – what the Withdrawal Agreement in its unmodified form represents.
To the third, the onus is on the EU to respond with border checks in the Republic of Ireland if it feels that the UK’s measures aren’t protecting the single market. Indeed, our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement are, as outlined by Ian Duncan Smith in the FT, to preserve the status of Northern Ireland as open to the rest of the UK as well as the Republic of Ireland. A clear majority of the province’s external trade goes to the rest of the UK – and this needs to be protected if we are to meet our Good Friday obligations. As we detailed in an earlier blog post, Britain needs to ‘box clever’ rather than abandon the agreement entirely – and this legislation is part of that process. When push comes to shove it will not be Britain that breaches Good Friday by imposing a hard border. (There is also a certain irony that voices which previously decried a trade deal with the US as undermining UK standards now aver America’s unwillingness to do a deal as a reason to respect the WA.) Moreover, the UK isn’t planning to abandon checks and notifications entirely. The Internal Market Bill merely arrogates discretion to ministers over how far customs declarations and state aid notices will be implemented, which doesn’t preclude the possibility of coming to an productive understanding with the EU over these issues – without, however, surrendering to Brussels the final say.