Written by Dennis R Schmidt, Lecturer in International Relations, Swansea University
The UK government’s proposal to pull back from the Brexit withdrawal deal it had already settled with the European Union has provoked outcry both at home and abroad. Revisiting the agreement undermines one of the bedrock principles of international law and order.
Boris Johnson must have seen it coming. You do not announce changing a freshly negotiated agreement – remember the deal is just eight months old – and expect the rest of the international community to sit still.
The Brexit withdrawal agreement is not just any agreement. It is a legally binding treaty, signed by both the European Union and the UK government. As such, it cannot be unilaterally changed. Doing so violates international law.
This, at least, the government seems to understand. In an astonishing comment in the British parliament, Tory MP and Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis blatantly acknowledged that the government is seeking to “break international law”. Lewis somehow thinks that this can be done in a “a very specific very and limited way”, seeing “clear precedents for the UK” to rewrite provisions on the treatment of Northern Ireland.
All of this is legal nit-picking and besides the point. In the end, violating an international treaty undercuts both global order and 80 years of UK foreign policy.
No order without promises
Any social order is founded on the notion that promises must be kept – a principle lawyers refer to as pacta sunt servanda. Technically speaking, this means that provisions and clauses of a contract or treaty cannot be changed.
The underlying rationale is simple: orderly and peaceful co-existence among members of society depends on stable commitments and expectations. Otherwise social interaction becomes impossible. This is why the sanctity of agreements, alongside the security of people and the stability of possessions, is one of the elementary goals of social order.
The same holds true at the global level. States can disagree on a lot of issues from trade to human rights. They frequently do. But without faith that promises are kept, and obligations once established are honoured, international society runs the danger of drifting into chaos.
Of course, global order will not break down simply because one state decides to neglect its obligations. But the UK still occupies a special place on the international stage. Together with the US, Britain was the founder of the so-called “rule-based international order” originating from the ashes of the second world war. In fact, lip service to this order is still being paid in almost all UK foreign policy statements and speeches.
Revisiting the Brexit agreement – or even just threatening to – is not only a great hypocrisy, it also damages the UK’s image abroad as a reliable ally and partner. As former British prime minister John Major put it: “If we lose our reputation for honouring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained”.
There may be another price to pay. The UK’s apparent disregard for an international treaty sets an extremely dangerous precedent. If one of the self-proclaimed defenders of law and order nonchalantly threatens to violate a signed agreement, it sends an open invitation to dictators and autocrats around the world to do the same. It’s as if the UK were saying, “if you do not like a legally binding commitment you made, then simply change it”.
All of this sounds strangely familiar. Playing hardball, ripping up international agreements, and disregarding long established international legal principles has been the order of the day for the current US administration. Indeed, it seems that the UK government has discovered Donald Trump’s foreign policy playbook.