A Cabinet minister has admitted the UK’s proposals to change the EU withdrawal treaty would “break international law”.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis told MPs the international law-breaking would be done in “a very specific and limited way”.
He said there are “clear precedents” for the UK and other countries which need to consider their international obligations as circumstances change.
UK ministers will introduce the controversial Internal Market Bill on Wednesday, which aims to ensure goods from Northern Ireland continue to have unfettered access to the UK market despite the country preparing to take on different customs arrangements with the EU than the rest of Britain.
Concerns have been raised that key parts of the EU withdrawal agreement (WA) struck between Boris Johnson and Brussels, which sealed the UK’s departure from the EU in January, will be overridden by the new legislation.
It comes after the surprise resignation earlier on Tuesday of the head of the UK Government’s legal department.
Sir Jonathan Jones is leaving his post – among the most integral and senior civil service jobs in the UK – but no official reason has been given for his departure.
Lewis told MPs the Government is “fully committed” to implementing the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol within it.
But he was asked by Conservative Sir Bob Neill, chairman of Westminster’s justice select committee, for assurance that nothing proposed in the legislation would “breach international legal obligations or… arrangements”.
The Cabinet secretary replied: “I would say to (Sir Bob) that, yes, this breaks international law in a very specific and limited way.
“We are taking the power to dis-apply the EU concept of direct effect required by Article 4 in certain, very tightly-defined circumstances.”
Lewis’ Labour counterpart Louise Haigh described the admission as “absolutely astonishing” and warned it would “seriously undermine” the UK’s authority on the international stage.
Lewis told MPs: “The UK internal market legislation that we will bring forward this week delivers on our commitment to legislate for unfettered access, something Northern Ireland businesses have consistently asked us to do and to ensure that we deliver certainty.
“This will give the certainty that the people and businesses, the economy of Northern Ireland, has been asking for and it supports the delivery of the protocol in all circumstances in line with the approach we set out in our command paper in May.
“The safety net we will implement, and we will outline this week, will deliver on the commitments made also in (our) general election manifesto.
“Specifically we will implement the provision in the protocol that Northern Ireland is fully part of the UK customs territory by ensuring that goods moving within the UK will never even inadvertently have to pay EU tariffs.”
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon branded the Conservative government “charlatans” when reports of its plans regarding the withdrawal agreement were leaked to the press earlier this week.