Northern Ireland Protocol Bill: Ministerial statement

Statement to Parliament by Cabinet Secretary for Constitution, External Affairs and Culture Angus Robertson on 29 June 2022.

Presiding Officer,

The UK Government’s Northern Ireland Protocol Bill had its second reading in the House of Commons on Monday.

The European Union consider this bill to be illegal.

Many in the Commons also doubted its legality.

Others warned it will undermine the United Kingdom’s international reputation.

Still more pointed out that it fails to bring the Democratic Unionist Party back into power sharing in Northern Ireland, or advance trade talks with either the European Union or the United States of America.

And yet not a single Conservative MP voted against the legislation.

I will focus my remarks on three issues which are of utmost interest to all colleagues in this Parliament.

Firstly, the issue of legislative consent – which Conservative members seemed to have forgotten about when they told us last week that this bill was none of our business.

Secondly, the question of international law, which itself is related to whether the Scottish Government can recommend consent.

And thirdly the potential direct impact – and damage – that will be caused to people in Scotland should this bill become law.

Presiding Officer

The Northern Ireland Protocol is a key part of the Withdrawal Agreement the Prime Minister signed with the EU in 2019.

Indeed without the protocol it is clear there would not have been a deal at all between the European Union and the UK.

And so good was that deal, according to Boris Johnson, that when he signed it, he hailed it as a “fantastic moment” and went on to fight a general election on the basis that he had got Brexit done.

Yet this Bill unilaterally disapplies, or affords the UK Government powers to disapply, the legislation that enforces parts of the Protocol in the UK.

In other words the UK Government wants to tear up that self-same apparently fantastic deal and renege on the UK Government’s commitment and international obligations.

And they want the Scottish Government to recommend consent for the Bill that does the tearing up and for this Parliament to agree that recommendation.

So, to address the first issue very directly, it is inconceivable that the Scottish Government could recommend such a legislative consent motion.

And that brings me to my second point today – the question of international law.

It is the opinion, seemingly, of all except the UK Government, that this legislation – if implemented – would breach international law.

It deliberately sets the UK on an entirely avoidable collision course our fellow Europeans in the EU, and leaves the UK increasingly isolated in the court of world opinion.

Following the introduction of the Bill, Commission Vice-President Maros Šefčovič, stated:

“Let there be no doubt: there is no legal, nor political justification whatsoever for unilaterally changing an international agreement. Let's call a spade a spade: this is illegal.”

He was not alone in this view.

It was a view echoed across European capitals.

And not just Europe. Senior US officials do not, and I quote:

“believe that unilateral steps are going to be the most effective way to address the challenges facing the implementation of the protocol.”

Most important of all, perhaps, is the view from Northern Ireland.

More than half the members of the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly have rejected the UK Government’s actions as, quote, “utterly reckless.”

So, reckless in terms of negotiating with the EU;

Reckless with regard relations with the United States;

And reckless with the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.

Legal commentators tend to agree that these proposals could breach International Law.

This is deeply concerning – but not surprising.

Not surprising, from a government that in 2020 brazenly said that its legislation to amend the Withdrawal Agreement, would “break international law in a limited and specific way”. As if that was okay.

Jonathan Jones QC, former head of the UK Government legal department, has described the legal position as “hopeless”.

In reference to the legality of the proposed legislation, let me turn to the Labour amendment.

Obviously, the Bill would still need to complete its parliamentary passage and be commenced by the UK Government to breach international law;

And the legal position would depend on conditions at the time as well as other factors and arguments about which we do not currently have full information.

But on that basis, I am content, the Government is content to accept the amendment.

Let me turn now to the Scottish interests.

It is clear that the Bill damages even further the UK Government’s relationship with our largest trading partner.

It causes business and investor uncertainty, and risks sparking a damaging trade war.

I cannot think of anything more irresponsible, Presiding Officer, than launching this confrontational action in the middle of a cost of living crisis, and when the UK is at real risk of entering a recession.

For the UK as a whole it has been estimated that Brexit has so far cost the UK economy £31 billion.

We know Scotland’s total trade with the EU was 16% lower in 2021 than in 2019, while its trade with non-EU countries fell by only 4% in the same period.

Many of the difficulties faced by Scottish businesses are a direct result of the UK Government’s decision to adopt a hard Brexit outside of the Single Market and Customs Union.

Where our supply chains interact with EU businesses – be it for materials, for finished goods, or labour and skills, this approach has made it harder and more costly for businesses to operate.

Catherine Barnard, Professor of EU Law at Cambridge University, has warned of even tougher times ahead and the risk of iconic Scottish products such as whisky, salmon and cashmere being affected in the event of a trade war.

That is hugely concerning. Scottish salmon exports to the EU alone are worth 370 million pounds and account for two thirds of the sector’s exports.

Any retaliatory measures for the sector would be expected to impact many of Scotland’s rural communities and supply chain operators.

Clearly, embarking upon an utterly senseless and self-defeating course of action, the UK Government has provoked an unwinnable conflict with likely catastrophic consequences for many people.

It is something that Scotland cannot, must not, accept.

The Protocol, of course, allows Northern Ireland to simultaneously be in the EU’s Single Market and the UK’s Internal Market.

It is disingenuous for the UK Government to claim the Protocol is doing harm to Northern Ireland’s economy.

Stephen Kelly, head of Manufacturing Northern Ireland, just a month ago stated the exact opposite. I quote him:

“Every piece of evidence presented so far shows a positive impact.”

This is echoed by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, which found that Northern Ireland’s economic output had recently outperformed the UK average.

Similarly, the chief analyst of the Ulster Bank has noted that manufacturing jobs are growing four times faster in Northern Ireland than the UK average.

Lastly, just last week, the Resolution Foundation, estimated that Northern Ireland will be the least impacted UK region in the long run because of its access to the Single Market.

Presiding Officer, for the reasons I have set out, I reject the amendment by the Conservative benches.

Today’s motion, as amended, asks the Parliament to take note of these very serious concerns, and to urge the UK Government to draw back from its course of reckless confrontation, withdraw the Northern Ireland Protocol bill, and re-start negotiations with the European Union immediately with a view to mutually agreeable, durable solutions.

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