On the 23rd June 2016, the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. Four years on, during a global pandemic and with the worst series of international recessions upon the horizon, the Brexit process has become significantly more daunting and confusing. However, before understanding how the new developments in the Brexit negotiations impact us, we need to understand what they are.
The latest hiccup in negotiations stems from a new Brexit bill proposed by the Conservative party, which has quickly divided party opinion as the Internal Market Bill violates the Northern Ireland Protocol. In short, the Northern Ireland Protocol ensures that goods will not need to be checked between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland (and so there is no hard border) on the 1st of January 2021, when the UK is scheduled to formally leave the EU. It was intended as a solution to Theresa May’s backstop plan, which meant that the UK remained part of the EU’s closed trading agreements and maintained an open border between N. Ireland and Ireland until a better arrangement was made. The proposed bill would violate the Northern Ireland Protocol and thus break international law. However, the secretary of Northern Island attempted to justify this in stating that the law would be broken in a “very specific and limited way”. The Internal Markets Bill gives ministers the ability to control regulations concerning state aid and customs procedures, thus allowing potential regulations that do not adhere to the requirements the Northern Ireland Protocol. While this may be quantified as a “very specific and limited” breach of international law, it is still a violation of the law.
However, what is not clear are the implications of this bill for the average UK citizen and the average European citizen when its conception has already caused rifts. Multiple ex-leaders of the Conservative party have publicly opposed the bill, and yet the House of Commons voted in favour of the bill. Thus there are two possibilities to consider: that the bill will be blocked by the House of Lords (or at some later stage) or it is passed into law despite its controversies.
The first political possibility is a return to the pre-agreed terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, though this may create leadership troubles within the Conservative party. A number of national scandals and U-turns (the latest being scrapping the national campaign to have workers return to the office) has further weakened the image of Boris Johnson’s leadership, which could result in a similar decline in public opinion as with ex-Prime Minister Theresa May. However, the chances of another leadership change remain slim due to the Conservative majority, while the debate surrounding the bill continues.
If the bill is passed into UK law, there are warnings it may ruin the UK’s international reputation. Moreover, the violation of international law may complicate future attempts to negotiate new trade deals for the United Kingdom post Brexit, as the EU has threatened to end negotiations if the bill is not changed. This could result in a no-deal conclusion with worrying implications for the average citizen. The London School of Economics has estimated that the cost of a no-deal Brexit would be two to three times more expensive than the cost more than the coronavirus pandemic, which equates to £2,400 per person, though these are not direct costs.
While the bill may ease trade between N. Ireland and Ireland (assuming Brexit negotiations can resume and conclude on schedule), the negative impacts are likely to be great and long-lasting. Most UK citizens may be subject to a steady rise in the prices of common goods, as tariffs will most likely be high and very complicated as a result of Brexit. The UK could see trade negotiations with other nations and trade blocs slump to a halt due to decreased confidence in UK ability, or the potential deals obtained with other nations may not be as beneficial as those that were in place prior to Brexit. Consequences are already evident as the news broke today that the EU has begun legal proceedings against the UK for its actions. Therefore, the socio-economic impact of the unlawful Brexit bill is unlikely to be a positive one.