While many of us are focusing on what was said at last night’s coronavirus press conference, crucial Brexit talks are happening today because of an under-reported move made by the government earlier this week.
Yesterday (Wednesday 9 September), prime minister Boris Johnson gave a press conference to explain the new lockdown rules. After weeks of encouraging us to eat out, go back to the office and embrace a ‘new normal’, the government now says we can only meet in groups of up to six because the R rate is rising. Anyone who breaks this rule, or any other existing rule, will be fined £100.
According to Matt Hancock, this increase in Covid-19 cases is down to young people. Understandably, this gaslighting behaviour (blaming people for something they were told they were allowed to do) has left people confused, angry and anxious about a second-wave.
In fact, it’s all anyone can talk about in WhatsApp groups, on Twitter and in work meetings. But the frustrating lockdown news has distracted many of us from another huge issue that affects us all: Brexit.
Ah yes, in a time before coronavirus was even a word (which was a mere seven months), Brexit was the subject that consumed our conversations and divided a whole nation.
Even though the UK left the European Union on 31 January, both sides still need to work out the rules for their new relationship. These cover things like trade, immigration, aviation, security and access to fishing waters. The rules have to be negotiated and signed off by the EU and UK parliaments by 31 December 2020. Johnson says an agreement on trade must be done by 15 October, for the new relationship to be ready in time.
With the ongoing pandemic taking over the news, it’s easy to take your eye off the Brexit ball. But something crucial has happened this week that we must talk about: the government is about to potentially “break international law” in its negotiations.
As reported by BBC News, the government revealed on Monday (7 September) that it would be introducing a new UK Internal Market Bill that could affect post-Brexit customs and trade rules in Northern Ireland.
Downing Street said it would only make “minor clarifications in extremely specific areas” – but it worried some in Brussels and Westminster that it could see the government try to change the withdrawal agreement, which became international law when the UK left the EU in January.
Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis said the bill will “break international law” and critics are saying the move will damage the UK’s international reputation.
Former PM Theresa May also warned the change could damage “trust” in the UK over future trade deals with other states. And leader of the opposition Keir Starmer says the government is “reopening old arguments that had been settled”, saying the “focus should be on getting a deal done” with the EU.
Labour politician and shadow secretary of state for Northern Ireland Louise Haigh has explained her “deep concern”, saying the prime minister “is appearing to undermine our legal obligations and his own deal”.
She later tweeted: “For the people of Northern Ireland, this is not the latest episode in a Brexit drama - this is a profoundly worrying moment that will shape their livelihoods, their businesses and their future. It reopens the uncertainty they hoped had been settled.”
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas has also suggested that this week’s lockdown rules announcement is being used as a distraction for the Brexit news.
“An announcement sneaked out late in the evening just in time to remove a minister’s admission of deliberate lawbreaking from most of the front pages,” Lucas tweeted. “Boris Johnson’s government has lost both integrity and credibility.”
Emergency talks are now taking place today (Thursday 10 September), as the EU is seeking “clarifications”. While the suggestion that one piece of bad news has been shared to cover up another story might seem farfetched, it’s certainly a reminder to try and take a moment to keep up with non-coronavirus updates.