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Boris Johnson’s move to rewrite Brexit rules clears first hurdle

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

LONDON (AP) — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s bid to rip up parts of the post-Brexit trade deal he signed with the European Union has cleared its first hurdle in Parliament, despite warnings from opponents that the move is illegal.

Lawmakers voted 295 to 221 late Monday to give initial approval to a bill allowing U.K. officials to rewrite trade rules for Northern Ireland. The vote clears the way for the bill to undergo detailed scrutiny in coming weeks.

If approved, the legislation would remove checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K., thereby scrapping parts of a trade treaty that Johnson signed before Britain left the EU in 2020.

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The British government says the rules, known as the Northern Ireland Protocol, are burdening businesses and undermining peace in Northern Ireland. It argues the unilateral move is justified under international law because of the “genuinely exceptional situation.”

Johnson’s opponents say the move is illegal and that going ahead will seriously damage Britain's international reputation.

The EU has threatened to retaliate against the U.K. if it goes ahead with its plan to rewrite the rules of the post-Brexit deal, raising the specter of a trade war between the two major economic partners.

Johnson said he believed the plan could become law by the end of the year if Parliament cooperates. The government wants to fast-track the bill through Parliament before lawmakers take their summer break.

Northern Ireland is the only part of the U.K. that shares a border with an EU country, Ireland. When Britain left the European Union and its borderless free-trade zone, the two sides agreed to keep the Irish land border free of customs posts and other checks because an open border is a key pillar of the peace process that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland.

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Instead, to protect the EU’s single market, there are checks on some goods, such as meat and eggs, entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K.

Johnson’s Conservative government claims overzealous EU implementation means the rules are not working as expected and are causing a political crisis in Northern Ireland.