Reports that the UK Internal Market Bill would tear up the EU withdrawal agreement have been causing political ructions all week. Today, the full text of the bill was published, and it looks very much as advertised.
Section 45 of the bill states that ministerial regulations apply "notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent." The definition of “Relevant international or domestic law” is explicitly defined as including "any provision of the Northern Ireland Protocol" and "any other provision of the EU withdrawal agreement."
This is a clear breach of the government's undertaking to give effect to the withdrawal agreement in domestic law. It is not, on the face of it, the action of a government that is serious about a Brexit deal.
However, some still see the bill as a bluff. The Economist's Matthew Holehouse argues that if the Government 'wanted to break its obligations in January it could just fail to comply. No legislation broadcasting the plan three months early required. '
It's questionable whether the bill will be on the statute book in time for Brexit. Lord Rifkind told CNN today that Boris Johnson will have "serious difficulty getting this proposal through parliament" with rejection likely in the House of Lords by 'a very large majority'. There are also doubts about how the courts would interpret the legislation. Above all, there is the fact that the UK's obligations would still remain in international law.
The Irish Government is still counselling a cool response, according to the Irish Times' Pat Leahy:
In this view, then – which holds that the British government is not, actually, a rogue actor on the international stage, merely threatening to act like one – the British actions of recent days are “sabre-rattling”, and to be understood as such. Expect much more of this in the coming weeks, this view says; expect many more noises about how the UK is prepared for no-deal and how the UK will hold firm, whatever the cost; and then expect to do a deal, in the end.
Peter Foster of the Financial Times reports that the European Commission is taking a similar view after a 'very tense' call between vice-president Maroš Šefčovič and Michael Gove. Šefčovič has called for 'an extraordinary EU-UK Joint Committee to be held as soon as possible – so that our UK partners elaborate and respond to our strong concerns regarding their announcement.'
Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen has also commented this afternoon, tweeting: "Very concerned about announcements from the British government on its intentions to breach the Withdrawal Agreement. This would break international law and undermines trust. Pacta sunt servanda = the foundation of prosperous future relations."
It remains to be seen, however, if the EU will take any further steps in response. While trust is at a low ebb, it will not want to be seen as responsible for a breakdown in talks. It may instead rely on time pressure to force Johnson to declare victory and move on.
If the bluff perspective is right, as it has been for most of the Brexit process, the British Government's undiplomatic behaviour will demonstrate to its domestic audience that it is fighting hard, creating space for Johnson to move onto substantive negotiations.