Illustrations by Hannah Robinson
Ever since that fateful day in June 2016 when it was announced that the United Kingdom would be leaving the European Union, there has been a never-ending tirade of information for people to de-code. People who may not have understood the nuances of the issue when casting their votes have, for four years, navigated complex political concepts, theories and relationships. The most recent to come into the fore is ‘Boris is going to be breaking international law with his new exit plan’. But what exactly is international law? Who enforces it? Where does it come from? And why does it matter so much that Johnson’s new Brexit plan breaches it?
To be able to answer and understand these questions we have to take a few steps back and look at international relations theory. This tries to explain the way states interact with each other and the motivations behind such interactions. Most IR theories hold that the international system exists in a state of anarchy. This basically means that there is no higher power than a state, and actors in the international system can essentially do whatever they want and there is nothing to hold them to account. However, states have taken measures to control this state of anarchy through the creation of an international rules-based system, consolidated through international law. This is essentially the liberal institutionalist view where states work together to create rules governing the interactions of states and an arrangement that serves everyone’s best interest.
For the last 70 years the international rules-based system has gained importance to the point where it has become a consensus throughout much of the world. Only a few actors publicly challenge or break international law, and this comes with intense condemnation from the global community. For example, when Russia sent troops into Ukraine and occupied Crimea the world reacted with sanctions and outcry. It was shocking that a country would so blatantly violate international law without a second thought.
So how exactly is Johnson breaking international law? To answer this we have to once again look backwards. The most recent Brexit Withdrawal Agreement came into force in February 2020, which included a Northern Ireland Protocol which stated that Northern Ireland would continue to follow EU custom laws so there’s no need for border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic. However, Johnson’s new Internal Market Bill gives the British government the power to override this agreement using domestic law. The bill gives Downing Street the power to implement customs rules across the whole of the UK, including Northern Ireland, which breaches the Northern Ireland Protocol. It is likely that if any kind of border control or infrastructure be installed it would trigger unrest, and potentially violence due to the long and bloody history between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Whilst it is true that Johnson may not be invading another country or occupying territory but much like Brexit means Brexit; international law means international law. It’s the very foundation of our international system and has managed to prevent the world from slipping into the total forms of war that we saw in the beginning of the 20th century. International law may not be a perfect system – in fact it is incredibly flawed, but so too are bodies like the UN and EU. Yet we still have to rely on them for order and security as they are all we have at the moment. If Johnson is allowed to breach treaty law that is not even a year old it not only sets disturbing precedents for future governments, but it signals to states across the world that we do not care. It endangers relations with our western allies as the UK as we become nothing more than a hypocritical little island that used to be one of the biggest empires in the world. It also could be seen as a green light for states like Russia, China and Iran to act out against a system that they do not even really support. If Britain does not want to be resigned to an insignificant world power after Brexit, the government should stop burning bridges and breaking international law.