Lawyer Monthly - July 2022

WWW.LAWYER-MONTHLY.COM 15 The largest unionist party in Northern Ireland, the DUP, is supportive of the bill, and is currently refusing to participate in the Northern Ireland Assembly until its concerns with the protocol have been resolved. Next Steps for the Bill While the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has cleared its first legislative hurdle, it is still far from settled law. The opposition and the 70 Conservative MPs who abstained from the recent vote will have an opportunity to support amendments stripping the bill of some of its more contentious elements. The government has set a condensed three-day committee stage for review of the new legislation – a process that typically takes between two and three weeks – signalling an intention to advance the bill through the Commons before the mid-July recess. Despite this, there is every chance that the end state of the bill after passing committee and the House of Lords will be much diluted from its current form, and a high likelihood that the Lords will slow its passage for several months. Conservative MP Simon Hoare, who chairs the Commons Northern Ireland Committee, has predicted that the final bill may not pass until next spring. Lawyer Monthly will continue to track the status of the bill as it passes through Parliament, as well as any further legal actions undertaken by the EU in response. Legality and Repercussions for the UK Some MPs and other critics of the government’s move have taken aim at the Northern Ireland Protocol bill for its deliberate contravention of the agreed terms of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement. In a statement in Parliament, former Prime Minister Theresa May condemned the passing of the “illegal” bill as liable to diminish the UK’s standing in the eyes of the international community. Others have argued that the bill is legally permissible in international law. The most common pro-bill argument cites the Article 16 provision of the protocol, which allows for unilateral safeguarding measures to be undertaken against the protocol if it leads to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade”. The protocol provides no guidance as to what qualifies as a “serious” difficulty or a “diversion of trade”, though the UK government stated in July 2021 that it believed the threshold had been met. To date, however, it has not begun the process of activating Article 16. Whether the bill constitutes a breach of international law or not, EU member states who perceive it as such will likely have few options for recourse. As a warning, the EU has restarted legal proceedings against the UK for alleged breaches of the protocol, with the possibility of further measures to be enacted later – such as the imposition of tariffs or the termination of the entire Brexit deal within one year as a “nuclear option”. With both the UK and EU economies already in a vulnerable position and unenthusiastic about a trade war, however, the only certain damage is likely to be dealt to international perceptions of the UK.

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