The UK foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, is facing a growing backlash in the US Congress after senior Democrats warned they would scupper any future US-UK trade deal if the UK does anything to jeopardise the Good Friday agreement in an attempt to leave the European Union on its own terms.
Raab flew to Washington to try to repair relations with pro-Irish Democrats, including the House speaker, Nancy Pelosi, and the chairman of the House ways and means committee, Richard Neal. The tide of opinion in Congress is moving fast against the UK after a lobbying campaign by the Irish embassy.
The ad hoc committee, a major pro-Irish lobby group to defend the Good Friday agreement, vowed to build “a green wall” to defend the agreement citing a compelling statement from former British prime ministers John Major and Tony Blair.
As Raab landed in Washington, four senior congressmen in a joint statement warned the UK’s plans “could have disastrous consequences for the Good Friday agreement and the broader process to maintain peace on the island of Ireland”. They added: “Many in the Congress and the US consider the issue of the Good Friday agreement and a potential US-UK free trade agreement are inextricably linked.”
They also say they support Pelosi’s statement that she will not back any free-trade agreement that undermines the broader Irish peace process. The quartet urged Raab “to abandon any or all legally questionable and unfair efforts to flout the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement”.
What is the UK internal market bill?
The internal market bill aims to enforce compatible rules and regulations regarding trade in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Some rules, for example around food safety or air quality, which were formerly set by EU agreements, will now be controlled by the devolved administrations or Westminster. The internal market bill insists that devolved administrations have to accept goods and services from all the nations of the UK – even if their standards differ locally.
This, says the government, is in part to ensure international traders have access to the UK as a whole, confident that standards and rules are consistent.
The Scottish government has criticised it as a Westminster “power grab”, and the Welsh government has expressed fears it will lead to a race to the bottom. If one of the countries that makes up the UK lowers their standards, over the importation of chlorinated chicken, for example, the other three nations will have to accept chlorinated chicken too.
It has become even more controversial because one of its main aims is to empower ministers to pass regulations even if they are contrary to the withdrawal agreement reached with the EU under the Northern Ireland protocol.
The text does not disguise its intention, stating that powers contained in the bill “have effect notwithstanding any relevant international or domestic law with which they may be incompatible or inconsistent”.
Martin Belam and Owen Bowcott
The letter is signed by Neal, Eliot Engel, the chairman of the foreign affairs committee in Congress, William Keating, the chair of the House subcommittee on European affairs, and Peter King, the only Republican congressman in the quartet. All four represent seats with large Irish populations.
Raab told the New York Times that the government was taking power to alter customs procedures for Northern Ireland if it cannot agree on permanent trading arrangements with the EU. He said it was “a precautionary and defensive and proportionate response to what the EU is doing”.
Neal told the paper he had been given previous assurances by Raab about the Good Friday agreement, but said he had been blindsided about the latest proposed changes in the withdrawal agreement.
Any free-trade treaty requires a two-thirds majority support in Congress so Raab can hardly afford to ignore the opinion of leading Democrats. The row is also a potential precursor of wider problems that Boris Johnson might face if Joe Biden wins the US presidency. Biden has Irish roots, opposed Brexit and despite the close UK-US ties will look askance at any British effort to weaken theEU or the Northern Ireland peace process.
Raab is due to meet Pelosi and Neal on Wednesday after talks with the US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, that are likely to focus on China and a US claim that it has a legal right to impose a snapback of all UN sanctions against Iran as early as this Friday.
The British position has not been helped by the conflicting government explanations for why the protocol is being changed or the news that the external legal advice commissioned by UK law officers came exclusively from pro-leave barristers.