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U.K. Threatens Brexit Change That Would Violate International Law


From a distance, across the Atlantic, it seemed like Brexit was over. Prime Minister Boris Johnson won a big election and moved ahead with his plans, seemingly resolving a years-old debate. Soon after that, the pandemic seized the world's attention, but now we return to the Brexit story and find it is not over at all. The U.K. has, indeed, left the European Union, but now Johnson has announced legislation that would violate the terms of the divorce.

NPR's London correspondent Frank Langfitt joins us now. Here there, Frank.


INSKEEP: What did Johnson do?

LANGFITT: Yeah, so what he did is he introduced a bill yesterday that would violate the agreement that he struck with Brussels last year to leave the EU. And I guess the way I would describe this is if you had this long, long negotiation, you got a really good contract, and then many months later, you just changed your mind.

And one of the things that Johnson wants to do is he wants the U.K. government to be able to pump money into key business sectors in Northern Ireland. The EU says this disadvantages EU businesses and violates the agreement, which is an international treaty. And even the U.K. government admits it's actually violating international law by doing this.

And, basically, the EU today is holding an emergency meeting. They've been exhausted by the British political system over the last few years, and they're calling an emergency meeting to try to save negotiations on a new free trade deal that would kind of keep the relations between the countries going much better.

INSKEEP: Why would the U.K. knowingly, openly violate the law?

LANGFITT: Well, I think that what's going on here - and there is a logic to it - is Boris Johnson I don't think ever really liked the terms of this divorce. And one of the arguments, if you remember back in 2016, for the Brexit vote was - the slogan was, take back control of U.K. affairs from the EU. And Johnson wants to have control over the U.K. economy and to be able to help, you know, particular companies compete. But this, of course, comes in the midst of stalls - stalled negotiations.

And I was talking to a woman named Catherine Barnard. She teaches EU law at the University of Cambridge. And she has kind of a thought that a lot of people have had as they've watched Johnson maneuver. This is how she put it.

CATHERINE BARNARD: One of the things, you could say, what the U.K. is trying to do is blow the negotiations out of the water now and then, perhaps, come back to the negotiating table in a year's time, when things have got better. The trouble is there's going to be an awful lot of businesses which will have gone under in the meantime.

INSKEEP: Are there a lot of businesses in danger, Frank?

LANGFITT: Absolutely. Well, there are already a lot of businesses that are in deep trouble 'cause of the COVID recession here. And the other thing is that, you know, Brexit has already made the U.K. poor, and if Johnson sticks to this - and we can't be sure that he will 'cause he's done a lot of U-turns in recent months - it could mean that at the end of December, you'd see customs checks at ports on the English Channel, you'd have tariffs, it would slow trade, and it would actually do even more damage to both of these economies.

INSKEEP: Would Johnson pay a political price?

LANGFITT: You know, maybe, but not necessarily, Steve. This is how Catherine Barnard put it.

BARNARD: It's long been said that Boris Johnson was prepared to use the COVID crisis as a cover for the damage that a no-deal Brexit would do.

LANGFITT: And so what she means, if you think of it this way - let's say your house gets hit by a tsunami, which is the COVID recession, and then you get another foot or two of water in the house, would you really be able to tell exactly where it came from? So some people think, actually, Johnson is willing to take the damage and maybe hide it because of the COVID recession.

INSKEEP: Could this add to the pressure for the U.K. itself to crack up?

LANGFITT: It could. Actually, people in Scotland were furious over Brexit. They'll be even angrier if there is a no-deal Brexit and it hurts their economy. And we've seen for the first time polls consistently showing more than half of Scots actually support leaving the U.K. So Johnson, if he goes through this, could actually embolden Scottish independence.

INSKEEP: NPR's Frank Langfitt covering the never-ending saga of Brexit. Frank, thanks so much.

LANGFITT: (Laughter) Happy to do it, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Frank Langfitt is NPR's London correspondent. He covers the UK and Ireland, as well as stories elsewhere in Europe.