What is the UK Internal Market Bill and why is it mired in controversy? Too often, legislation is written in obscure language, which cuts it off from the very people it’s supposed to serve. We explain the bill in layman’s terms, which everyone can understand.
There has been a lot of talk in the media recently about the UK government’s Internal Market Bill, which passed its first hurdle in the House of Commons by 77 votes.
What does this bill do? Why are some in favour of it and why, to others, is it controversial? Here’s an explainer in everyday terms.
What is the UK Internal Market Bill?
The Acts of Union of 1707 created the United Kingdom. Consequently, there has been free trade between all four of the UK’s constituent countries.
When the UK joined the European Economic Community (the predecessor of the European Union) in 1973, most British trade laws were replaced by European laws.
In the 1990s, devolution was established in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, which gave those countries control over most of their own affairs. The devolved governments couldn’t contradict EU law, however.
Now the UK has left the European Union, the UK government insists this legislation is crucial to protect the internal market between the four countries.
The UK is currently in a transition period in which it has left the EU but still has to abide by its rules. However, trade between the UK and EU is as frictionless as it was when the UK was part of the EU. That is until the transition period expires on 31 December 2020.
The purpose of this transition period is to give the UK and EU time to reach a trade agreement, which has still not been agreed. In fact, it is the tense nature of these talks that has led the UK to propose this bill.
What are its advantages and disadvantages?
Arguments for passing this bill
Prime minister Boris Johnson and many Conservatives in his government are pushing for this legislation.
Johnson and supporters of this bill argue that without it, the European Union would use something called the Northern Ireland protocol to gain leverage over the United Kingdom in trade talks.
In a nutshell, the Northern Ireland protocol is a clause in the already-agreed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement that aims to prevent a hard border in Ireland by aligning Northern Ireland to some EU rules in order for goods to move to the Republic of Ireland (which is in the EU).
The problem is this could lead to potentially huge trade charges (known as tariffs) being applied to goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, even though Great Britain and Northern Ireland are legally part of one United Kingdom.
To many, the idea an outside foreign force could make Britain pay more to move goods from one part of its country to another is unthinkable. In fact, Boris Johnson was clear “no British government” could accept this demand.
Supporters of the bill are even less inclined to pay those charges if trade talks between the UK and EU collapse without a deal.
The Internal Market Bill essentially creates a single market for the UK in which all goods are equal and without tariffs.
Even though the legality of this bill is arguably its biggest controversy, Boris Johnson insists the Internal Market Bill is merely an “insurance policy” that would only be used if the EU attempted to apply tariffs on British goods to Northern Ireland. A trade deal between the UK and the EU would also eliminate the need for this Internal Market Bill.
Arguments against passing this bill
The biggest problem with the Internal Market Bill is it breaks international law by breaking the already-agreed Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. The UK government has conceded this bill does break international law but, as the Conservatives put it, in “only a limited and specific way”.
The fact this bill breaks international law is why it has attracted so much criticism. It’s not just Remainers complaining about this piece of legislation either as many Brexiteers are furious too.
Leading Brexiteer and Boris’ former attorney-general Geoffrey Cox called this bill “unconscionable”.
Five former prime ministers have also lined up to voice their discontent, with Tony Blair and John Major publicly united in opposition after opposing each other in politics for years.
Former Labour leader and now shadow business secretary Ed Miliband also said this bill gets “Brexit undone” by revisiting already settled issues.
Miliband said Britain had a once great reputation as a birthplace of the rule of law – but this reputation could now be in tatters.
It could make the UK seem like a country that can’t be trusted and turn off countries who want to make post-Brexit trade deals with the UK. Nancy Pelosi, speaker of the US House of Representatives, has said she will use her control over the US congress to prevent any UK-US trade deal that has a negative impact on Ireland.
Miliband also argued there isn’t a need for this bill as tariff disputes could be handled by the Northern Ireland Protocol Committee, without breaking international law.
The other major reason for opposition to the bill is politicians in Scotland and Wales view it as an attack on devolution.
This is because the EU’s powers would transfer to Westminster instead of being devolved and could lead to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland having to accept a different set of standards on goods moving to those countries.