Friday, 18 September 2020

Blockades, mythical and metaphorical

The Internal Market Bill (IMB) and its repercussions have been the predominant theme of this week’s developments. Almost as soon as I wrote my previous post, Brexiter MPs started justifying that Bill in terms of the supposed EU threat to ‘blockade’ food supplies travelling from Great Britain (GB) to Northern Ireland (NI). In particular, it was this threat which was used to justify the incendiary step of including the clauses in this legislation which would break international law. This justification has now been widely repeated, including by the Prime Minister.

This was a dishonest linkage to make, because there is nothing in the IMB which would prevent this mythical ‘blockade’ (though there are rumours that the forthcoming Finance Bill will do so). The two areas in which the Bill proposes powers to defy international law are – as detailed in the previous post – goods flows from NI to GB and  the state aid rules in the NI Protocol (NIP). This point was made in a very effective parliamentary performance from Ed Miliband during the IMB second reading debate this week, in which he challenged Boris Johnson to explain his claim – which, unsurprisingly, as it would have been impossible, the Prime Minister refused to do.

The myth of the ‘blockade’ threat

As so often in the Brexit saga, disentangling the different strands of what is being said and why is complex. The first time a linkage between the IMB and the ‘blockade’ threat was suggested seems to have been in a report in The Sun on Tuesday of last week, where it was said that Michel Barnier had made “veiled threats” about GB to NI food flows during the trade negotiations and that it was these which had provoked the government to its move against the NIP (quite how the timings of this would have worked is unclear, by the way).

The story was given legs by a reference in Barnier’s statement at the end of last week’s talks when he said that “more clarity is needed [about GB’s proposed future sanitary and phytosanitary regime] for the EU to do the assessment for the third-country listing of the UK”. Such listing will be needed for GB agricultural produce to enter NI at the end of the transition. The UK position – as articulated by David Frost - is that this is a non-issue as GB will continue to follow EU standards, and if it proposes to change these will give the EU and the WTO plenty of notice.

Whether this issue is being used as negotiating leverage in the trade talks or not I don’t know. But it certainly doesn’t amount to the threat of a ‘blockade’ with its connotations of naval interdiction. Rather, it is a reminder of the procedural, rules-based nature of the EU as an institution and, for that matter, of international trade. It is not enough for the UK just to say it will follow the EU’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) standards and, as Boris Johnson asserted at this week’s liaison committee, that the EU should automatically list the UK with its failure to do so meaning it is not acting in good faith. Rather, like any third country, which is what the UK has chosen to be, it needs to submit the relevant documentation for assessment.

If it is compliant, then the EU would have no grounds to refuse third country listing, and there is no suggestion that it would do so. Even if it did, the UK’s correct response would be to seek redress through the WA dispute system (and, perhaps - I am not sure - through the WTO) and in the meantime to make use of the existing provision within the NIP whereby “serious economic … difficulties” can be addressed by unilateral action, thus avoiding any ‘blockade’.

In short, there’s no reason to think that the EU is minded to punish the UK in this way, even if it was it couldn’t, even if it could the UK has no need to break international law to respond to it, and even if it did need to the IMB doesn’t provide the means.

My guess is that the UK has not wanted to submit its SPS plans because of the likely contradictions between following EU SPS rules and making trade deals with other countries, especially the US (although it is reported that the government now says it will do so by the end of October). For the EU’s part, there is presumably a reluctance just to take it on trust that the UK will comply and will give adequate notice of any changes. Similarly, it is reluctant to take on trust that the UK’s post-Brexit State Aid regime will be robust and wants to see the precise detail before agreeing a trade deal.

Such a lack of trust is the inevitable consequence of the bellicose, negative and sometimes duplicitous way that the UK has approached the Brexit negotiations over the last four years. Doing so has consequences, and those consequences have caught up with Britain. They can only be compounded by the current threat to break international law, so if that threat was indeed meant as a counter to Barnier’s position about third country listing then it is counter-productive anyway.

The wider attack line

However, the initial reporting was not the same as what came to be said, in that it only suggested the IMB clauses were being used to ‘talk tough’ in reply to the EU’s ‘threats’. It was not until a few days later that it began to be falsely claimed that the Bill was actually a way of neutering those threats.

The obvious reason is that the ‘blockade’ line offers, to Brexit supporters in the population and the media, something that sounds sufficiently serious to justify the breaking of international law. Perhaps it was developed in part because of the backlash against that plan. However, it is only one strand within a wider and much more dangerous narrative that the Brexiters are developing. For the ‘blockade’ allegation is part of a thoroughgoing attempt to claim that the EU are not negotiating in ‘good faith’. As noted above, the Prime Minister himself explicitly linked third country SPS listing with good faith this week.  But the wider attack is that not just for this reason but more generally it is the EU and not the UK which is in breach of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and, therefore, of international law.

It takes quite some brass neck – actually, it takes a sociopathic lack of self-awareness and pathological dishonesty - to make such a claim, but none of these qualities are alien to the Brexit Ultras. As usual (cf. GATT Article XXIV) they seize like barrack-room lawyers everywhere on some half-understood (if that) legal text to give themselves a veneer of authority with which to impress the gullible. Currently, it is Article 184 of the WA (see p.287 of link) according to a semi-literate briefing produced by the ERG (described by law Professor Steve Peers as “perhaps the worst legal analysis I have ever seen, and I am including students who leave their exam booklet blank”).

This article requires both sides to negotiate in good faith and to use their best endeavours to secure agreements on the future relationship. Risibly, the Brexiters interpret this to mean that if the EU doesn’t give the UK a deal that it wants then that violates the article and means the EU is not acting in good faith. They also conveniently ignore that Article 184 refers to the agreements to be sought as those referred to in the Political Declaration – the very document which, with its references to level playing field conditions, they and the Brexit government have disowned. Even in its own terms it’s nonsense since if, as claimed, the EU is in breach of the WA then, as with the ‘blockade’ non-issue, the remedy is to use the dispute resolution procedure within the WA rather than unilaterally to break its terms.

Never mind. Like so many other bogus Brexiter claims this one – along with other equally footling ideas such as that the NI Protocol was only designed to be temporary – are now being pumped out by any and every Brexiter MP and their social media foot soldiers. So too is the Brexiters’ idea that since the Miller case (which forced the parliamentary vote on triggering Article 50) confirmed the primacy of parliamentary sovereignty over the Executive then ‘therefore’ this means parliament doesn’t have to obey international law. It’s hard to be too scathing of the woeful intellectual inadequacy and dishonesty of such gibberish.

The motivation here is obvious. Even in these post-truth times it strains public credulity that a government that signed a deal six months ago can now claim it is deeply flawed. Admittedly Bernard Jenkin now openly says that “the UK made a mistake in signing the WA” – something he and the rest of the ERG voted to do - but if that becomes the Brexiter message then it suggests that the entire basis on which the Tories campaigned and won the General Election was also a mistake. It might even invite the heretical thought that if MPs can change their minds about what they voted for then so too could the electorate that voted for Brexit.

So, instead, the blame is being ascribed to the EU for bad faith and for making ‘extreme’ interpretations of the WA. This, rather than Brexiter delusion or duplicity, is then used to justify reneging on parts of it or in due course – as I have been suggesting for some time is the Ultras’ hope – on its entirety.

The IMB at home and abroad

For the time being that only extends to the provisions of the IMB, assuming it passes. This is now likely because it seems the government has conceded to its ‘rebels’ that the provisions which would break international law can only be activated with a further parliamentary vote (and with some other new caveats). It is only a fig leaf, with little substantive meaning, although it does show that there are still lines – even if only shakily drawn in the sand – that Johnson isn’t quite able to cross.

But as so often in the Brexit process – the Chequers Proposal and the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ come to mind – attempts to broker domestic agreement, even if successful, myopically ignore international consequences. In particular, the existence of this legislation even in very slightly softened form is anathema to the EU.

There seems to be some dispute as to whether simply passing (or even just proposing) such a law would, in itself, be grounds for the EU to take legal action, or whether that would require the powers granted to be exercised. It is also a political question as to whether the EU would do so even if legally able, to which the answer seems to be ‘not yet’. Either way, assuming the relevant clauses pass in any form the damage will have been done to the last residue of the EU’s trust. The EU won’t walk away from the trade talks, and a deal is still possible, but the inviolability of the WA as a condition for such a deal has been forcibly reaffirmed. And it will taint the UK’s international reputation as Ursula von der Leyen has warned (£), with potential effects going far beyond Brexit.

Already this week we have seen signs of that, with robust statements from Joe Biden and other US politicians re-confirming that a UK-US trade deal is unthinkable if the Good Friday Agreement is compromised. Breaching the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) in the ways proposed by the IMB doesn’t in itself necessarily do that, but it could be a move in that direction.

Indeed Dominic Raab’s visit to the US, which occasioned these statements, showed how this could be. For in defending the IMB he made the extraordinary comment that it was only necessary because the EU was trying to erect a regulatory border down the Irish Sea. Yet that it is precisely what the UK has agreed to. So if Raab actually understood and meant what he said – an open question, since he appears to be totally out of his depth - then the entire basis of the provisions in the NIP which prevent a land border with Ireland, and therefore the GFA, would be compromised.

Brexiter MPs reacted with fury to Biden’s intervention but, like it or not, as a consequence of Brexit Britain has, as it were, blockaded itself into isolation, and can be booted around by the big players whether that be the US, EU or China. Arch-Brexiter John Redwood may blithely opine that “trade deals are nice to have but not essential … Getting back full control of our money, our laws and our borders is essential”, but that always hollow slogan now sounds increasingly like the last desperate cry of a country sinking into oblivion. Not waving, but drowning.

Domestically, the IMB may initially have looked smart. The Tories could depict Labour’s opposition to the Bill as “siding with the EU”, and many voters will surely take the view that breaking international law isn’t ‘really’ breaking the law. And as one said on a vox pop on Radio 4 this week ‘it’s not as if we’ll be torturing people’. Plus for many Tory core voters almost anything that seems to further the Brexit cause, or even just sticks fingers up at the EU, or even just enrages the liberal metropolitan elite, will be greeted with rapture.

Yet those voters – and more importantly the Brexit Ultras – may be infuriated at having been marched up the hill of flouting the WA only to be marched half-way back down again when Johnson encountered some opposition. There are also rumours that the legislation may now be delayed, despite the initial claim that it was so urgent it had to be rammed through quickly, which would be a further climbdown.

So the IMB is beginning to look like yet another Johnson fiasco. He has raised the Ultras’ hopes of ditching the WA – or at least of ‘sticking one’ on the EU - then backtracked. Yet the damage to relations with the EU and to the UK’s wider reputation is done anyway, and won’t be forgotten for a very long time. In this respect, too, he seems to have blockaded himself into a corner.

The underlying problem: trying to turn lies into policy

Aside from their immediate motivations and effects, these latest events re-emphasise something more fundamental about Brexit. It has always been based upon a denial of, or at best a naivety about, reality. In particular, as Tom McTague wrote in The Atlantic this week, a denial of the reality of the meaning of Brexit for Northern Ireland (or of Northern Ireland for Brexit). Consider the absurd dismissal of this reality by Boris Johnson and others in 2016, insisting that Brexit would have no impact on the Irish border because of – again, invoking a bit of legal-sounding mumbo-jumbo – the longstanding existence of a Common Travel Area. But there has to be a border somewhere. Having for reasons of expedience accepted that it would be across the Irish Sea, Johnson is now trying yet again to deny the need for a border.

Brexit wasn’t just a denial of the reality of Northern Ireland but also of the nature of the single market, the nature of the EU, and much else besides. Looking at the Vote Leave campaign documents now, there is scarcely a sentence in them that anyone could now seriously defend. The line in the final page summary about “having better relations with our European friends” has a particularly hollow ring to it this week, whilst the core economic claim that “there is a free trade zone from Iceland to Turkey to the Russian border and we will be part of it”, always a lie, now looks like the ravings of a lunatic.

As I wrote in March 2019, you can lie but you can’t turn lies into policy. The attempt to do so is the reason the UK is being driven to more and more extreme positions. It is that which has given the events of the last few years their strangely repetitive quality as, like moths dashing themselves against a window pane, the Brexiters keep trying to buck reality. A small example of that came this week when Geoffrey Cox refused to support the IMB on the basis that it broke international law by unilaterally over-riding the WA. Cox – himself a Brexiter, demonstrating that they are not all Ultras – had also as the then Attorney-General refused in the face great pressure to advise that the government could legally unilaterally exit what was then the backstop in May’s WA. That was eighteen months ago, but the Ultras are still convinced there is a way around having to honour what you agree to.

What we see in the government’s present contortions over the IMB is, as Rafael Behr wrote with customary insight this week, “the dawning, desperate realisation that there is no way to reconcile responsible statecraft with the fulfilment of Eurosceptic fantasy”. But the realisation, if that is what it is, has come too late. The UK government and Eurosceptic (or Brexiter) fantasy are now inseparable and – in their aims to reshape the civil service and judiciary – they threaten also to capture the institutions of the state.

Of course, for those who have the true faith, it is neither fantasy nor lies, and no event or experience can shake them into accepting reality. Some, at least, still genuinely believe that there is some kind of trade agreement that can largely replicate single market membership without any of the obligations. They still believe that either now or after a few months without a deal the EU will make such an agreement, no doubt at the behest of German car makers. They still believe that it doesn’t matter much anyway, as ‘WTO terms’ will be just fine. They still believe that the Irish border issue is one confected by Brussels and perhaps Dublin. The real blockade is of their brains: fanatical Brexiter ideology prevents the entry of reality.

What now?

Their fantasy will, as it always has done, seek to drive Brexit policy in a harder and harder direction. It is the only way of outflanking encroaching reality – if we push harder our dreams will come true, and if they don’t come true it is because we aren’t pushing hard enough - and is also the only way of sustaining the populist culture war that secures them the votes they need. Derogation from the European Convention of Human Rights is the already emerging next step, perhaps after a no (trade) deal Brexit and, if so, the subsequent ripping up of the WA in its entirety. For there is surely no way that either the financial settlement or the NI provisions would survive Brexiter pressure in the absence of a trade deal (though one must pray that those for citizens’ rights would).

That seems a perfectly feasible short-term scenario, and at the beginning of this week might have seemed the most likely. Certainly Sir Ivan Rogers, who has been right about most things to do with Brexit, believes that that there will be no deal.  But in this febrile atmosphere, and with a Prime Minister so lacking in consistency, principle, or even basic competence, Brexit predictions are more difficult than ever. So as the week ends it still looks possible that after all the chaos of this autumn (of which there is much more to come) clears away, some kind of fairly limited deal will be done. At least, there are a few straws in the wind – as regards both fisheries and even state aid – that this might be so.

If so, the economic consequences will be bad but not dramatic and not very visible, just a gradual decline of prosperity. Relations with the EU will be sour but not totally destroyed. Resentfully the UK will comply with the Irish Sea border, and the complex, rickety mechanisms for doing so may just about work. There will be years of ongoing negotiations on a piecemeal basis, and constant attempts by the UK to push to the limit and beyond what it had agreed. The Brexiters will be sulphurous and constantly urging more antagonistic stances, and still convinced that their fantasy would have been possible had it not been betrayed.

It’s hardly an inspiring vision, yet, limited though it is, an optimistic one which in another week may seem hopelessly unrealistic. For there are many obstacles to reaching even this very modest destination. Brexit has blockaded Britain from any more convivial one.

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