Former UK Leaders Blair and Major Slam Government Plan to Breach Brexit Treaty

September 13, 2020 Updated: September 14, 2020

Former British prime ministers Tony Blair and John Major have issued a joint warning against the government’s plan to override parts of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, an international treaty it had negotiated and signed with the European Union.

Writing in The Sunday Times, the two former leaders warned that tearing up part of the withdrawal agreement will jeopardize peace in Northern Ireland, make it harder to negotiate trade deals, and destroy trust in Britain.

Tony Blair John Major
Former British Prime Ministers Tony Blair and John Major attend the Remembrance Sunday ceremony at the Cenotaph, in London, on Nov. 8, 2015. (Glyn Kirk/AFP via Getty Images)

Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government concluded the Brexit withdrawal agreement with the EU in October 2019, and signed it into law in January. The pact lays out the UK’s terms of exit from the bloc and has the status of an international treaty.

But the British government openly admitted last week that its proposed Internal Market Bill, which potentially breaches the treaty’s Northern Ireland protocol, “does break international law,” albeit “in a very specific and limited way.”

Boris Johnson
Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends a virtual press conference at Downing Street in London on Sept. 9, 2020. (Stefan Rousseau -WPA Pool/Getty Images)

‘Shaming the Nation’

Major, a Conservative prime minister from 1990 to 1997, and Blair, his Labour successor for a decade, called the government’s action “shocking,” as it “is shaming itself and embarrassing our nation.”

The plan to override the treaty “strikes at the very heart of the withdrawal agreement” and “puts the Good Friday agreement at risk,” they wrote.

The Good Friday agreement, reached in 1998, ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland. Major and Blair played crucial roles in this process.

John Major Northern Ireland
Then British Prime Minister John Major shakes hands with security personnel on duty in the Ennskillen area of Northern Ireland on 31 Mar. 1994. (PA/AFP via Getty Images)

“This has wide-ranging ramifications,” they wrote, because once trust is undermined, “it will not only make negotiation with the EU more difficult, but also any trade negotiations with other nations, including the United States.”

The two former prime ministers urged Parliament to reject the proposed bill. “If parliament deliberately passes legislation known to undermine international law, what will that do to the reputation of parliament and our nation?”

UK Integrity ‘Threatened’

The planned legislation, which will be debated by British lawmakers from Monday, has led to a furious outcry within the EU as it would diminish the bloc’s previously agreed oversight of trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland if a UK–EU trade agreement isn’t secured.

EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier
EU Chief negotiator Michel Barnier, second from left, arrives with his team at the Westminster Conference Centre in London, on Sept. 9, 2020. (Alberto Pezzali/ AP Photo)

“The reputation of the UK … as a trusted negotiating partner on important issues like this is being damaged in a very serious way,” Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney told the BBC on Sunday.

Johnson says the new legislation is needed to clarify the Northern Ireland protocol, to protect free trade between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland.

Writing in The Telegraph on Saturday, Johnson accused the EU of threatening to “use an extreme interpretation of the Northern Ireland protocol to impose a full-scale trade border down the Irish Sea,” and “to destroy the economic and territorial integrity of the UK.”

EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier rejected that charge. He said on Sunday that the Northern Ireland protocol “is not a threat to the integrity of the UK,” and had been agreed by the two sides to protect peace on the island of Ireland.

UK Politicians Divided

Keir Starmer, leader of the opposition Labour Party, said his party would oppose the bill in Parliament unless concerns were addressed.

“We have broken the trust of our international partners,” Starmer wrote in the Sunday Telegraph newspaper.

UK Labour Keir Starmer
Labour Party leader Sir Keir Starmer leaves his home in London on April 22, 2020. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The government is also facing pressure from some of its own backbench members of Parliament who are uneasy at the prospect of the government breaching international law.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May said in Parliament last week that the government risked serious damage to its international image.

“How can the government reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?” May asked.

British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Number 10 Downing Street
Then British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves Number 10 Downing Street for Prime Minister’s Questions in Parliament in London on Feb. 13, 2019. (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

Tobias Ellwood, a former Conservative minister who currently chairs of the Defence Select Committee in the House of Commons, also said he could not accept the legislation, arguing that the bill diminishes “our role-model status as defender of global standards.”

Nick Gutteridge, Reuters, and The Associated Press contributed to this report.