Minister admits government is ‘breaking international law’ with Brexit proposal

PUBLISHED: 14:20 08 September 2020 | UPDATED: 14:41 08 September 2020

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis answers questions on the Northern Ireland protocol. Photograph: Parliament TV.

Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis answers questions on the Northern Ireland protocol. Photograph: Parliament TV.

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A minister has admitted the government plans to break international law with its plans to override the Withdrawal Agreement for Brexit.

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Brandon Lewis, the UK’s Northern Ireland minister, acknowledged that Boris Johnson’s proposal “does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”

The minister was responding to a question from Tory MP Bob Neill who said that “adherence to the rule of law is not negotiable”.

He asked: “Against that background, will he assure us that nothing that is proposed in this legislation does or potentially might breach international legal obligations or international legal arrangements that we have entered into?”

To audible outrage from MPs, Lewis replied: “Yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”


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He said: “We are taking the power to disapply the EU law concept of direct effect, required by Article 4 in certain, very tightly defined circumstances. There are precedents for the UK and indeed other countries needing to consider their international obligations as circumstances change.”

He insisted the Finance Act 2013 “contains the example of treaty override, it contains provisions that expressly disapply international tax treaties to the extent that these conflict with the general anti-abuse rule.”

Lewis added the government was still working “in good faith” with the EU despite this.

Labour’s Andrew Gwynne responded: “I’m astounded that the minister has just conceded that he is proposing to break international law. Perhaps for the first time I agree with the honourable member for Maidenhead, this is a question of trust when it comes to signing international treaties. We can’t condemn others for seemingly breaking the international rules... if we’re prepared to do the same.”

Gwynne was referencing Theresa May, who had issued a barbed criticism of the government for undermining the withdrawal agreement, asking “how will the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations it signs?”

France’s former Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau, tweeted: “Mister secretary, you ‘don’t break international law in a specific and limited way’. You do break it or you don’t. You can’t be half illegal, as you can’t be half pregnant.”

The comments come as a sixth leading civil servant announced he was resigning from government, with reports claiming he was “very unhappy” with Johnson’s proposals.

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