Britain’s Boris Johnson breaks the law — so what?
Britain’s government is planning to violate international law.
Conservative Prime Minister Boris Johnson is moving forward in the nation’s Parliament with legislation that will arrogantly abandon part of the departure agreement with the European Union (EU). This has generated the latest crisis in Brexit, the now familiar term of reference for the nation’s departure from the union.
Among other components, the proposed law permits the government to send aid to Northern Ireland without EU approval, and goods shipment with the rest of the United Kingdom without required forms and paperwork.
These may seem like the sort of dull details that are the stuff of life for EU Brussels bureaucrats. However, they are the law, integral to Britain’s departure agreement from the economic institutions on the continent. Modern international law is rooted in, and initially motivated by, the need for orderly regulation among nations in trade, insurance protection and other aspects of commerce and investment.
A large number of Conservative lawmakers along with many others are publicly opposed to Johnson’s surprise move. Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis counters the proposal would breach international law only in a “limited and specific way.”
“How can the government reassure ... that the U.K. can be trusted to abide by the ... agreements it signs?” asked Theresa May, Johnson’s predecessor. Former Prime Ministers Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, David Cameron and John Major have also denounced the effort publicly.
At the end of January, the United Kingdom formally departed from the EU. However, the practical relationship does not end abruptly.
According to the agreement, this year involves transition, with the new relationship to be negotiated in detail. This is of vital importance to businesses, but also the population as a whole.
Ideally, the departure will occur without abrupt shocks disrupting trade and investment, tourism, legal and other professional licensing. These and many other sectors will be affected when Brexit occurs in total. Those sectors reach far beyond the business world.
The British voted in 2016 to leave the EU, providing important confirmation of the deep ambivalence in the nation regarding Continental Europe. The close but clear vote in the referendum to depart was unexpected. As with the U.S. presidential election in the same year, the majority of opinion polls predicted the opposite outcome.
Significance for Northern Ireland is profound. The 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which finally brought peace between warring Catholics and Protestants, depends on economic stability.
The European Union was the product of total, global war, World War II. Early in that conflict, insightful leaders among the Allies concluded that new international organizations were essential to avert a third world war.
One result is the United Nations. Another is the European Union, which grew out of a limited European Coal and Steel Community. Those two industries were tangible, essential and successfully tied France and Germany together.
Destructive German militarism has faded. Today, German Chancellor Angela Merkel is an especially influential leader in international as well as European terms. She personifies a positive as well as powerful Germany.
Britain’s history reflects pragmatism and realism, successfully brokering the Atlantic area and European institutions that keep the peace, through both military and economic means. That history also includes leadership in the law.
Roger Gale, another Conservative Member of Parliament, said on Twitter that Britain’s actions are now “regarded world-wide as an act of bad faith” and that “honor is not for sale or barter.”
Arthur I. Cyr is Clausen Distinguished Professor at Carthage College and author of “After the Cold War” (NYU Press and Macmillan). Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.