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International Law and Political Necessity

The UK government’s proposed “breach” of its Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union is purely a negotiating ploy. Critics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's tactics must argue their case on pragmatic rather than legal grounds.

LONDON – Whenever the great and the good unite in approval or condemnation of something, my impulse is to break ranks. So, I find it hard to join the chorus of moral indignation at the UK government’s recent decision to “break international law” by amending its Withdrawal Agreement (WA) with the European Union.

The “breach” of the WA is a calculated bluff based on the government’s belief that it can honor the result of the 2016 Brexit referendum only by deploying considerable chicanery. The main problem is reconciling the WA with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland and committed the UK government to maintaining an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson negotiated and signed the WA, and must have been aware of the implicit risk of Northern Ireland remaining subject to EU customs regulations and most single-market rules. But in his determination to “get Brexit done,” Johnson ignored this little local difficulty, rushed the agreement through Parliament, and won the December 2019 general election. He now must backtrack furiously to preserve the UK’s economic and political unity, all the while blaming the EU for having to do so.

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