Friday 26 February 2021

Brexit constipation

It was always going to be the case that post-Brexit the UK and the EU would be in ongoing negotiations, for which the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) would be the basis and from which the relationship would evolve. That was assured if only by the Brexiters’ truism that ‘we are leaving the EU, but we are not leaving Europe’. The basic facts of geography, economics and international relations make such continuing negotiations inevitable.

Boris Johnson’s recent G7 speech at the Munich security conference may have tried to ignore that inconvenient truth - by mentioning the EU only twice, and then disparagingly – just as he wants to avoid all mention of Brexit, but it doesn’t change the reality. It’s a reality which takes the concrete form of the crisis that is silently engulfing Britain’s trade with the EU, its biggest trading partner. There are increasing delays in the shipping of goods, with shortages and price rises as a result. Some firms, especially smaller ones, have simply given up on trading. Meanwhile there has already been significant damage to the financial services industry and warnings of worse to come.  

So, whilst rarely in the news headlines, sector after sector is now reporting the impact of the new barriers which were the inevitable result of leaving the customs union and the single market. Professor Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University has created an astonishing archive of, so far, 200 reputable news stories over the last month or so about the quite extraordinary damage which is being done by Brexit.

However, what was not inevitable, although always highly likely, was that rather than these ongoing negotiations being about a relationship evolving from the TCA they continue to endlessly revisit and replay the debates that led to it. Brexit is thus stuck. At the heart of this lies the continuing refusal of the government, and Brexiters more generally, to accept what Brexit means and to accept what the UK agreed to, both in the TCA and in the Withdrawal Agreement (WA), including the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

One index of that refusal is the replacement of Michael Gove as co-chair of the Joint Committee overseeing the WA/NIP by David Frost, who negotiated the TCA. Frost will also be the UK chair of the new Partnership Council to oversee the TCA. This in itself is suggestive of a desire to frame the post-Brexit negotiations in terms of those which led to the TCA rather than in terms of what might develop from it. It is also indicative of a more hard-line approach (£), in contrast to Gove’s supposed weakness, with Frost’s monocular focus on ‘sovereignty’ at its heart (the EU, meanwhile, has moved on, although as Jon Worth explains on his blog that presents its own issues).

A hard Frost

The irony is that it was Frost’s approach, enabled, of course, by Johnson and building on the red lines established by Theresa May, which created precisely the trade barriers which are now causing so much damage. The only way in which these supposed ‘teething problems’ will be reduced (they cannot be eliminated without reversing hard Brexit altogether) is if the UK agrees to align more closely with EU rules.

In particular, aligning on sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) rules would, as suggested in my previous post, ease the pressure on some of the industries suffering the most visibly, such as fishing and agriculture, and unblock some of the problems that Northern Ireland is facing. It seems clear that the EU would be amenable to this. Heeding calls from the chemicals industry to reconsider how the UK relates its regulation to the EU REACH system would be another way of improving on the TCA. Similarly, were the UK to accept a mobility agreement with the EU it could reduce some of the damage to services trade, along with other measures such as those suggested by Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform.

Perhaps Frost will prove more pragmatic than his previous conduct suggests, but the signs are not good, as Mujtaba Rahman, the respected analyst at Eurasia Group, has convincingly argued this week. What seems more likely is a continuation, or an escalation, of the bellicose rhetoric of ‘retaliation’ against the EU for implementing the agreement that the UK itself has signed up to. As both Rahman and Rafael Behr – in an interesting analysis which I’ll return to later – suggest, there is considerable domestic political mileage in continuing to pick fights with the EU. The economic damage, which might in other contexts be a national crisis, seems hardly to matter to this government and it doesn’t seem to be paying any political price for this.

Labour’s deafening silence

One reason for that is Keir Starmer’s deliberate and now deafening silence on what is happening. The one thing which an Opposition leader can do is influence the news agenda. If Labour were minded to, what are currently a stream of apparently disconnected stories, often buried in the business pages, could be pulled together to create headline news of massive governmental economic incompetence. Of course Johnson would try to twist this as Labour being anti-Brexit, or seeking to reverse Brexit, but if Starmer were canny he would position the attack in the fertile soil of Johnson having betrayed Brexit by hastily signing a deal for his own political convenience without regard for what it meant for ordinary people and for the country in general.

That is, after all, what some and perhaps many leave voters now think and so would not even necessarily entail alienating former Labour leave voters in the ‘red wall’. Such voters were probably not, for the most part, those for whom Brexit was a huge over-riding issue in and of itself but, having voted for it, they then ‘lent Johnson their vote’ to ‘get Brexit done’. That implies only the softest of commitments to voting Tory, and one very receptive to the charge that Brexit may have been ‘done’ but it was ‘done wrong’ by the Tories. The other side of the coin is that, in pussy-footing around the supposed sensibilities of red wall voters, Labour are treating the bulk of their supporters with contempt.

Electoral considerations aside, Starmer’s failure of leadership on, not Brexit, but the UK’s post-Brexit future is a catastrophic dereliction of duty. Who else is going to speak up for those being damaged by what is happening to this country’s trade? It’s also a major strategic error. He has a once in a generation opportunity to cast Labour not only as the party of business but, in doing so, as the protector of the working-class jobs and communities that are dependent on trade with the EU. It is ironic that Starmer is now replicating the way that, as I once described it, Jeremy Corbyn approached Brexit like an inordinately straitlaced Victorian confronted with a piano leg. In this way, too, Brexit is stuck.

The Brexit Ultras are stuck in the same old loops

Whilst the government is being given a free pass by Labour to escape scrutiny of the effects of the Brexit it agreed, it does not follow that it is giving Brexit Ultras what they want. Again, Brexit is stuck in a recurrent loop because even as Johnson doubles down on ‘sovereignty’ with Frost’s appointment, he is finding, like all his recent predecessors, that the Ultras want more. So, rumbling away, are all the same old battles. Hence former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib, bemoaning the new barriers to trade that come with the TCA, makes – apparently in all seriousness - the bizarre jump of logic that the TCA should therefore be scrapped, thus resurrecting no-deal Brexit 2.0. Bizarre because, of course, that would simply mean that in addition to those barriers of trade there would also be tariffs and quotas. Yet he surely isn’t alone in wanting to revive the ‘Go WTO’ call of yore.

Meanwhile, Arlene Foster and other Northern Irish unionists (plus, for some reason, the hapless Habib) are seeking a judicial review of the NIP. The DUP have, of course, always been opposed to Irish Sea border but now the ERG are also calling for the NIP to be scrapped (£). They believe, quite wrongly, that Article 16 of the Protocol allows the UK to do just that (for an accurate explanation of what Article 16 does and does not allow, see David Allen Green’s limpidly clear blog post). In a rational, or even half-honest, politics, this might seem truly astonishing. After all, the WA/NIP was the ‘oven ready deal’ on which Johnson fought and won a General election and for which all the ERG MPs subsequently voted.

But as I noted at the time, “many in the ERG will now be thinking that Johnson’s deal was only the bastard offspring of May’s ill-fated premiership and the ‘remainer parliament’, and feel no allegiance to it. They kept quiet during the election campaign, which required them to pledge support for Johnson’s deal, but that won’t necessarily last”. That proved to be true, because soon after having voted for it, and Johnson signing it, many of them denounced the entirety of the deal as not being “sovereignty compliant”. Now the issue is coming to a head, and it could spell real political trouble for Johnson and, more importantly, for the country.

The obvious problem is what is the alternative to the sea border? And on this the Brexiters are again stuck, returning to the endlessly debunked ideas of ‘technological solutions’ to create (as in David Trimble’s recent article in the Irish Times) an “invisible” land border or, as the ERG have it, “alternative arrangements” for the “mutual enforcement of the North/South border” (I fear it is only a matter of time before the ‘Malthouse compromise’ gets another airing). That is again bizarre since if these solutions really did exist then why could they not be used for the sea border? But, more to the point, it simply returns us to all of the issues about the Irish border that were discussed ad nauseum during May’s premiership. The underlying realities of the Good Friday Agreement have not changed. But nor, too, has the underlying refusal of the Ultras to accept these realities – regarding them instead as a contrivance of the EU and of Ireland to thwart Brexit.

As things stand, the government this week re-affirmed its commitment to the full implementation of the NIP. But this was at a meeting of the Joint Committee with Gove still co-chairing. It may be that when Frost takes over that will change, especially with the new pressure from the ERG. If so, there will be a monumental crisis. That meeting also saw the UK seek extensions to the various grace periods on full implementation, in order to develop the necessary systems. Yet, as with the entirety of both the WA/NIP and the TCA, the lack of readiness stems from the government’s own decisions – in this case not to extend the transition period. This too roots back not simply to Johnson’s refusal last year to extend, but to the heated arguments within the Tory Party during the summer of 2017 about the very idea of there being any transition period.

In these and other ways the Brexiters are proving incapable of ‘moving on’ from Brexit. As a result, the whole country is stuck in the debates of 2017-2019 when, it will be recalled, ‘Go WTO’ and ‘alternative arrangements’ were endlessly proposed as alternatives to the Brexit deals. But those deals are now done, leading to the question, posed this week by (another) blog by David Allen Green, of whether, if this recursivity continues, the WA/NIP and TCA “will be able to withstand such sustained political assaults.”

The political psychology of Brexit, part 94

Green’s discussion begins with reference to the remarks of Mujtaba Rahman and Rafael Behr which I linked to above, both of which suggest that continuing antagonism is more or less assured. Behr, in particular, locates this within a political psychology of Brexiter grievance and victimhood, with its associated “heroic defiance”. I think that is right, and it is a psychology I have been writing about on this blog since November 2016. But I’d push the point a bit further.

What seems to be happening now is the drawing together of several strands within that psychology. One is the persistent idea that any actual Brexit ‘isn’t what we meant’ or, in other words, a refusal to accept the actual consequences of Brexit as being the result of the UK’s choices. That then morphs into the idea of EU ‘punishment’ and even into behaving as if Brexit is, somehow, being forced on the UK. In some ways it has always seemed as if the Brexiters would have been happier had they lost the Referendum but, now, they have found a new way to wallow in bellicose victimhood. The result is certain kind of cakeism: Brexiters have the cake of a Brexit delivered and yet are still able to eat the cake of Brexit grievance.

The consequence of this is that no one else can ‘move on’ either. Erstwhile remainers, or for that matter those who are neutral about it, can hardly ‘try to make Brexit work’ when the government’s rigidities preclude assisting in that, whilst the Ultras are still calling into question the entirety of the Brexit deals. Not only are they stuck, but so is the whole country.

But the context has changed

However, although in all these ways the Brexit saga is repeating itself, what is crucial is that the formal Brexit process has moved on. Before the Referendum, the Brexit debate was purely domestic. Afterwards, at least once Article 50 was triggered, that debate continued to be parochial but at least ran into the realities of negotiating with the EU. But, now, Brexit has been defined in international agreements. The WA/NIP, in particular, is binding in international law and the NIP is of especial interest to the new US administration. So the legal and geo-political costs of breaking or flouting it would be very high, as would the economic costs of breaking the TCA (which has still to be ratified by the European Parliament, by the way).

Brexit is therefore no longer simply a matter of domestic politics. This means that the childish refusal of Brexiters to be realistic about what Brexit means and to take responsibility for the consequences of the choices they have forced upon the country gets more dangerous and damaging by the day. That damage is most obviously economic, but it is also reputational. Many Brexiters, even as they angrily denounce others for ‘talking Britain down’, will be ignorant of, or indifferent to, it, but they have made Britain a laughing stock internationally, as shown by a recent scathing article in the New York Times.

More concretely, as illustrated by the striking image at the Munich security conference of Merkel, Macron and Biden discussing transatlantic security, far from emerging as ‘Global Britain’, Brexit is rendering the country marginal. The Brexit press whined about Biden ‘snubbing’ Britain at the conference by not mentioning it in his speech, but this is what marginalization brings. Yet even as it is happening the Brexiters indulge themselves in fantasies such as Daniel ‘single market’ Hannan’s idea of a UK-India trade deal (£) based upon what he fondly imagines to be the ‘sentimental’ attachments between the two countries. Like the CANZUK fantasy that some are still pushing, it’s a good example of what has been called the ‘Ladybird’ thinking behind Brexit, which as a prospectus for Britain in the twenty-first century it is worse than risible.

The urgent need is to improve trading and diplomatic relations with the EU, but that can’t happen whilst Brexiters are stuck in the past, whether that be the 1800s, the 1950s or the endlessly revisited battles of the last five years.


I don’t think there is any reason to think that any of this is going to improve. Looking back over the last few years of this blog I find periodic posts (also here) arguing that ‘now’ Brexiters and the Brexit government need to get real. It never happens. Or perhaps it would be better to say that it can’t happen, as it is in the nature of Brexit to deny reality. I had some hopes - never great, certainly naive and now pretty much dead - that with the TCA there could be some kind of re-set or normalization of UK-EU relations. It’s already clear that that will not happen, at least in this political generation.

There is a report today from the invariably reliable Tony Connelly of RTE that “senior EU figures are contemplating a major re-set of relations with the UK” to coincide with the ratification of the TCA in the hope of creating a more harmonious atmosphere. But the reality is that ever since 2016 almost all the antagonism has been generated by the UK’s Brexit Ultras rather than the EU. At all events, it takes two to tango and for the reasons given in this post Brexit Britain seems unlikely to dance, stuck as it is in the same old patterns.

This Brexit constipation is here to stay. There is, to continue the scatological metaphor, currently no political laxative powerful enough to shift it. It will take an enema, which is not yet in prospect and, if and when it comes, will be undignified and painful.


Apologies that there was no post last week – I was unwell – but many thanks for those who sent good wishes or who remarked that they missed (and valued) the blog.

My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback Publishing in June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback or via other online platforms, including Waterstones, as a paperback or e-book.

Friday 12 February 2021

The Brexit we've got

Over the last five years there have been innumerable types of Brexit identified – including soft, hard, clean, true, no-deal, smooth, dirty, kamikaze; innumerable different models – including Norway, Canada, Switzerland, Jersey, Turkey, Australia, Ukraine; and innumerable versions of how to resolve the Irish border issue – managed divergence, ambitious managed divergence, maximum facilitation or ‘maxfac’, the three baskets approach, the hybrid model or customs partnership, the SPS-only solution, the two borders solution, the smart border, and, as if we could forget, the Malthouse Compromise.  

In the end, though, there is only one type of Brexit, and only one model for it, and only one version of the Irish border solution. It’s the Brexit we’ve got.

The problem is, no one seems to like it very much. The even bigger problem is that this includes the government led by the same people who led the campaign for Brexit and the same people who negotiated the terms of Brexit. And the biggest problem of all is that they signed agreements with the EU which bind them – and all the rest of us – to the Brexit they now dislike so much, the main current focus of that dislike being the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

Hence last night’s “frank but constructive” meeting of Michael Gove and Maros Sefcovic, the joint chairs of the Joint Committee overseeing the NIP. The prior exchange of letters showed that the UK wants huge swathes of the NIP revised as well as a two-year extension of the grace period on the introduction of some GB>NI checks, whilst the EU pointed out that some of these demands, especially as regards Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) checks could only be met were the UK to align with EU SPS rules. It also indicated that the UK has yet to implement much of what had been agreed, and that until it had issues of what changes might be needed, or possible, could not be considered. Separate reports suggest that EU will not offer a two-year extension of the grace period but only three or six months.

The immediate reaction from the UK government to Sefcovic’s letter was to hark back to the EU’s (non-) triggering of Article 16, continuing the opportunistic use of this as a false argument for revising the NIP, as discussed/ anticipated in my previous post.

A brief history of the Irish Sea border

It’s worth stepping back to see just how extraordinary a situation this is. An Irish Sea border, initially as a ‘backstop’ in case no other solution could be found, was first agreed by the UK in December 2017, at the end of phase 1 of the Article 50 talks under Theresa May. Within a couple of days, the then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, casually repudiated it as ‘non-binding’ in a TV interview, prompting the EU to write it up as a legal text. This was immediately denounced by May as something that “no British Prime Minster could sign up to”, leading through a tortuous process to a different backstop.

May’s backstop was deemed unacceptable by the Brexiters and replacing it was central to Boris Johnson’s party leadership campaign. When he became Prime Minister, he agreed to replace the backstop with a frontstop which was … the Irish Sea border. This he declared to be huge triumph for his negotiating skills, and was part of what he put to the electorate in 2019 as his ‘oven ready deal’ which would ‘get Brexit done’. Once elected, his MPs all voted for this deal, with barely time to read it, and he signed it with the EU leading to the UK leaving on 31 January 2020.

Yet within just 48 hours of that the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, denied any Irish Sea border had been agreed and a few days later Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, said the same. Within less than a month there were reports (£) that Johnson had ordered plans to be drawn up to “get around” the NIP, and he, too, has repeatedly denied that there is a sea border. Within a few months, the Brexit Ultras – including some of those who had voted for it as MPs or MEPs – denounced the entire Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, as incompatible with British sovereignty, and not long after the British government proposed to break international law by unilaterally over-riding key provisions about the Irish Sea border within the Protocol. Now, barely more than a year since it was signed and barely a month since it became operational, the government is demanding it be completely renegotiated, whilst many Brexiters are calling for it to be scrapped altogether.

It is not, by the way, as claimed by James Forsyth in the Spectator this week, that the NIP “was agreed by Boris Johnson as he struggled to get a Brexit deal in time for the 2019 General Election”. At the time he agreed it, parliament was still refusing to allow him to call an election, and there was no reason to think that was going to change. It did, but only after the introduction of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. Any idea that Johnson was somehow hurried into agreeing a deal he did not understand is untrue. If there was a time pressure, it was solely of his own making because he did not want to extend the Article 50 period again. In any case, whatever the reason, it would be a groteseque and indefensible failure of statesmanship to make a major international agreement without understanding or accepting its contents.

As the cliché has it, you couldn’t make it up. But it is hugely serious, both in its implications for Northern Ireland and for the wider relationship between the UK and the EU. As a thought experiment, imagine how Brexiters and the government would have reacted had the EU behaved in anything like this way. Their fury can be guessed by looking at the mileage they are making of the, by comparison, trivial error the EU made in its aborted invocation of Article 16 the other week. They are claiming that as some game-changing breach of trust and yet it pales into insignificance compared with this litany of dishonesty and untrustworthiness.

Deeper roots: Brexit doesn’t mean … Brexit?

This, in turn, has deeper roots than the mendacity and incompetence of successive Brexit governments. Rather, it grows organically out of fundamental flaws within the entire Brexit prospectus. Most obviously, it arises because Brexiters never understood, and some still deny, that Brexit had any implications at all for the Irish land border. Johnson and others said this explicitly before the Referendum and did so repeatedly afterwards. Thus, by extension, they also don’t accept that the Irish Sea border is necessary as a way of avoiding the land border.

All this is a sub-set of a profound paradox within Brexit. As I have written before, many Brexiters simultaneously see Brexit as a vital change, imbued with huge meaning, and yet as not meaning that anything much changes at all. That is, Brexit was treated as a symbolic act of supposed national liberation but as if it didn’t, or shouldn’t, carry practical, legal, institutional consequences – or, if it did, this was just because the EU is being unreasonable.

In the present context, this is evident in Gove “demanding” that EU SPS rules be relaxed: “it does not threaten the integrity of the EU single market to have bulbs ordered from a wholesaler in Scotland or England which will then be planted in a garden in Belfast or Ballymena. We need to be practical and pragmatic about this”, he complains (£). But, of course, it does create such a threat. It’s in the nature of rules that they be applied, or else they cease to be rules. And if waived in one case then the inevitable demand is that they be so for another, and so on, until nothing is left of them. What “practical and pragmatic” really means here is to leave unchanged those things which the UK has chosen, with Gove a key architect, to change.

A similar point is made by David Allen Green in a blog post this week. There, he remarks upon how Gove (and George Eustice, the Agriculture Secretary) are complaining about the EU not consulting or giving warning about changes to EU regulations. But, as Green points out, “that is what Brexit means”. “What”, he rhetorically asks, “did Gove and other Brexit-supporting politicians think Brexit meant?” Well, indeed.

It’s a rhetorical question if we assume rationality or, indeed, ‘practicality and pragmatism’, but within Brexiter political psychology it has an answer. And the answer, I think, is that they thought it meant things continuing pretty much as usual. It’s an answer which is at once less understandable and less defensible than the doctrine of ‘cakeism’. I’m not sure it’s even about British exceptionalism, or at least not solely. I think it’s more to do with this idea of Brexit as symbol rather than substance and it is the counterpart of the way that, as the first Brexit White Paper put it, “whilst parliament has remained sovereign throughout our membership of the EU, it has not always felt like that”. By extension, Brexit was about gaining the ‘feeling’ of independence but not the concrete effects, which are held to be punishment.

Be that as it may, it presents a huge problem for the EU, especially. This is not, as David Frost rather patronisingly opined this week because “the EU is still adjusting, somewhat … to the existence of a genuinely independent actor in their neighbourhood”. Rather, it’s because it has a neighbour which appears to have no real understanding of, or commitment to, the things it agrees to. Just as Brexit is a symbolic act so, apparently, are Britain’s international agreements with the EU ‘just bits of paper’. It may very well be that, within what is on the paper, the EU can agree some “flexibilities”, but the fundamental point is that these agreements are legally binding and do not allow things to just go on as if Brexit had never happened, or as if those agreements had not been made. Brexit has real consequences, and not just for Northern Ireland of course.

Ongoing consequences and Brexiter apologias

Those consequences continue to be seen and will get a lot worse when the UK introduces the import controls it was not ready to enforce when the transition period ended. The damage Brexit is causing – just to take a selection from this week -  is shown in the heartbreaking stories of individual businesses from cheesemakers to meat processors to lobster exporters to oystermen, in the staggering 50% increase in the cost of road freight from France to Britain, in the decline in German exports to Britain, in the collapse of trade through Welsh ports, in the jobs that would have been created in the UK by JJD Sports going  to the EU instead, and in business surveys such as that showing that one in ten Japanese businesses will reduce their UK presence as a result of Brexit whilst none – none – will expand it, and that showing (£) that half of British exporters are experiencing problems described as ‘worsening’ and, even, a ‘nightmare’.

These and the multitude of other stories of Brexit damage linked to in my recent posts show just how devastating Brexit has already been. But there is no definitive assessment, not least because, extraordinarily, the government has refused to publish any impact assessment of its trade deal with the EU. It would be a very naïve person who imagined that this is because such an assessment would show how beneficial it has been. Instead, we have the assessment provided in another article in the Spectator by well-known Brexit ideologues Robert Tombs and Graham Gudgin. It’s a piece of note, not for its quality but for drawing together the various apologias that are doing the rounds in Brexiter circles.

They compare what has actually happened with the “cliff edge” predicted – ignoring the fact that the ‘cliff edge’ prediction almost invariably referred to a no (trade) deal Brexit – so, unsurprisingly, find that the actual effects in terms of queues and shortages were far less severe. They downplay, as the government do, the difference between cross-channel trade flows with cross-channel truck flows, caused by the issue of empty trucks identified by the Road haulage Association. They dismiss the impact on financial services as having been “dealt with long ago” (they presumably mean things like the transfer of €1.2 trillion of banking assets from London, with more to come), with job losses to the EU just “a few thousand posts” (7000, some high value, ignoring the many more expected to come) and say that “since January, financial services trade has continued with no obvious difficulties” (unaware, apparently, of the near total exodus of EU share trading in January (£) which has resulted in Amsterdam overtaking London (£) as the largest centre for such trade) . Smaller firm business to consumer trade is “likely to largely disappear”, they admit, and agri-food and fishing businesses are blighted in various ways, but, as to that – well – it’s just the way it is. Apparently, they tell us, some didn’t understand that non-tariff barriers are often more important than tariffs! Well go the foot of our stairs. That’s only what many of us have been trying to explain to Brexiters for five years now.

And then there is the Northern Ireland Protocol, which Tombs and Gudgin opine is “totally unworkable” and should be “radically changed”. But since they admit this is unlikely, they fall back on the false argument that the disruptions the NIP is causing would justify using Article 16, bolstered by the non-argument that the EU’s recent near-invocation of Article 16 now makes it easier for the UK to do so. This, as the government’s response to Sefcovic’s letter illustrates, has now become firmly established as the Brexiters’ latest piece of mumbo-jumbo – the post-Brexit equivalent of German car makers or GATT Article XXIV.

The Brexiters’ new modesty

Apart from the factual inadequacy of this pollyannaish account of the effects of Brexit, what is striking about it and similar attempts to do the same is how Brexiters have pretty much given up on claiming that anything good is happening as a result of Brexit. Instead the suggestion is that ‘it isn’t too bad’ or ‘it isn’t as bad as some people said it would be’ which, even if it were true, is a pretty underwhelming defence. Brexit was sold for the sunny uplands it would deliver, so to now say that the result is persistent rain but there’s been no hurricane is hardly a ringing endorsement.

In this context, there is something mildly amusing in the spectacle of Michael Gove being left to scurry about trying to deal with all the problems that Brexit has caused. There is, somehow, the sense of Johnson having, Bullingdon Club style, trashed the restaurant and now dispatching the grammar school oik to clean up the mess. But since Gove lent his oleaginous faux-gravitas so freely to the Vote Leave campaign it is hard to feel much sympathy. It’s difficult, though, not to feel considerable, indeed profound, sympathy for Maros Sefcovic.

As to what happens now, it’s perfectly possible that the UK government will quietly agree to, in particular, SPS alignment in order to reduce one big cause of disruption. Or it may decide to invoke Article 16 and set up a huge crisis. A bit like the ‘deal or no deal’ drama of last year, it is easy to construct an argument to predict either outcome. But on the basis of what happened with the TCA last year, and also with the Withdrawal Agreement that created the NIP in the first place, it’s perhaps slightly more likely that the outcome will be the former. That seems to be the implication of initial reports of last night’s meeting having “lowered the temperature” (£). If so, the immediate row may be defused but it is in the nature of what Brexit has created that it will be succeeded by another and another. Far from basking in the triumph of Brexit, Gove is likely to be grubbing around in the Augean stables for many years to come.

Welcome to ‘real Brexit’ – because it’s the only one there is.

Friday 5 February 2021

Brexit is coming apart at the seams

The electronic ink had hardly dried on my previous post which finished with a reminder that unexpected events are always liable to arise than just such an event occurred. During a very confused few hours last Friday evening the EU first proposed and then withdrew the proposal to impose export controls on coronavirus vaccines moving from Ireland to Northern Ireland, though this did not mean ‘closing the border’ and would not have meant stopping vaccine shipments at the border. This proposal would have involved the invocation of the emergency provisions in Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol. In the event, it did not happen but it has brought to a head issues which have been lurking in the background for months and given the UK government an alibi for destabilizing the Protocol.

The EU’s blunder

It immediately became apparent that this was a major blunder by the EU – or more specifically the European Commission – which had been done without regard for the political consequences. Neither the British nor the Irish government nor the Northern Ireland Assembly had been consulted or warned, and nor had Michel Barnier’s UK engagement team. As the news emerged, the Irish government in particular, along with Barnier and the EU Ambassador to the UK, played a key role in getting the situation quickly resolved. It also seems to be the case that the British government was measured and calm in its response, for which it deserves credit, although since then there has been a marked shift in its tone.

In and of itself it was an indefensible error by the EU. But all political systems commit such errors and it was speedily corrected, so whilst there may well be some lessons for the European Commission in what happened the idea that it says anything one way or another about the merits of Brexit is nonsense. Inevitably some Brexiters leapt upon it to claim justification, and some erstwhile remainers professed that it had changed their minds about Brexit. But there was no reason for that except for anyone who imagined that the EU is a perfect institution that never makes any mistakes, which remainers shouldn’t have and Brexiters surely didn’t. And let’s be clear, this episode has not led to the breakdown of trust between the UK and the EU – that was caused by the UK’s behaviour over the last four years or so, years in which the EU has been remarkably consistent and rational. That doesn’t excuse this piece of stupidity but it should put it in perspective.

The underlying problem: Brexit itself

The key point is that this episode was only possible because of Brexit and in particular because of the rickety and highly precarious arrangements for Northern Ireland which have had to be created to accommodate it. For the EU this means, amongst other things, having to get used to the fact that closing its borders with adjacent third countries is no simple matter. The UK is a third country, but the unique situation of Northern Ireland gives the meaning of that a particular complexity.

The issue isn’t that the EU needs to have any concern for annoying Brexiters. Despite what some in the UK seem to think, the EU does not view the world through the lens of Brexit as they do, and is not particularly bothered about nasty headlines in the UK press. Rather, it is that the EU needs to be attentive to the specific situation in Northern Ireland, not least as this is a matter of significant concern to Ireland which is a member state. In that context, any invocation of Article 16 would have to be a very last resort for a massive emergency.

The EU’s carelessness about this has been jumped on to feed the pre-existing, and wholly unjustified, demands from some unionist politicians in Northern Ireland, as well as some Brexiters outside Northern Ireland, to make use of Article 16 to suspend the operation of the GB-NI border, as mentioned in my post a few weeks ago. This is unjustified primarily because that operation is not an unforeseen or temporary emergency but is the necessary consequence of what the UK and the EU have agreed. Even more unjustified is to opportunistically use what happened on Friday to bolster the again pre-existing demand to scrap the Northern Ireland Protocol in its entirety.

Unsurprisingly, some of those doing so are still pretending that it, and the whole Withdrawal Agreement, are open to wholesale revision in the light of the TCA. Indeed it shouldn’t be forgotten that there is a hard core of Brexit Ultras who have never accepted the Withdrawal Agreement and the Protocol and have long argued for the government to jettison them, and will use any pretext to support that argument. The current row about last Friday's events is therefore a symptom of a much deeper problem.

How have we got here?

Demands to ditch the Protocol beg the question of what should replace it, and here it’s necessary to go right back to the fundamental issues of how it arose. To be extremely brief, it has come about because the hard Brexit of leaving both the single market and customs union necessitates that there be a border somewhere. Since it cannot be a land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland because of the Good Friday Agreement, and there are no technological solutions that would create a virtual border, it has to be a sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

These facts were ignored or denied by Brexiters before the Referendum, including Boris Johnson, and many of them continue to deny it even now. Yet it was the reason for the ‘backstop’ agreed by Theresa May. Brexiters, including Johnson, said that was unacceptable and he instead agreed, and his MPs voted for, the ‘frontstop’ whereby there would, regardless of whatever got agreed in the TCA, be a sea border of some sort. How intrusive a border that has turned out to be is an artefact of the UK’s decision to prioritise divergence from EU regulations in the name of sovereignty in the TCA.

That is a very short account, but what it means is that the complex and messy situation we are now in – including the ongoing and expected to increase disruptions to goods flows between GB and NI – is the result of Brexit in general, and of the particular way that Johnson’s government chose to implement Brexit. What that is now leading to is not just economic disruption but an emergent and highly worrying political and, potentially, security problem whereby sea border control staff are being threatened with violence and as a result some checks on animal products and food were suspended this week. Note that these threats also pre-date the Friday night Article 16 fiasco so cannot be blamed on it. Just as a land border is unacceptable to, especially, the republican community so too is a sea border unacceptable to, especially, parts of the unionist community. (It is important for anyone with a public platform, even one as limited as this blog, to clarify that there is no evidence of paramilitary involvement in these threats.)

What is now becoming ever-clearer is that Brexit threw a huge rock into the high delicate and fragile machinery of the Northern Ireland peace process, a machinery of complex checks and balances which had as an implicit condition the fact that both Ireland and the UK were within the EU. The Protocol averts the worst of the damage, by preventing an Irish land border, but that doesn’t prevent there being any damage at all. It is an enduring badge of shame that Brexiters were so casual in ignoring what Brexit would mean for Northern Ireland, that hard Brexit was pursued despite what it meant, that Johnson agreed to something without, apparently, understanding what it meant, and that his MPs endorsed it. The shame is all the greater given that the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU.

Johnson’s dishonesty and opportunism

The danger now is that the government looks set to use the EU’s stupid mistake as cover to try to completely unpick the Protocol. At the heart of that lies the refusal of the government, including Johnson and Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis, to accept that the Irish Sea border even exists as a result of the Protocol they agreed to. That it manifestly does, with all the adverse effects that is having on Northern Ireland, is therefore being blamed on the way the Protocol is being operated, allowing Johnson to indulge in the sickening pretence that he can “ensure there is no border down the Irish Sea”. Worse, he threatened to invoke Article 16 even before the Friday row and is doing so again now as if in response to, or somehow justified by, the EU’s error.

The problems that Brexit is currently causing businesses in Northern Ireland, even though they are of the government’s own making, make it reasonable to ask the EU to extend the various existing grace periods – for example on uncooked processed meats – as Michael Gove has done in his letter to Maros Sevcovic, his co-chair of the Joint Committee. And there may be other adjustments that can reasonably be made. But Gove is quite wrong to suggest, in his rather aggressive letter, that the EU’s error provides a reason why the operation of the Irish Sea border should be revised wholesale and entirely in line with UK demands, and still less justified in using the implicit threat of the UK itself now invoking Article 16 if these demands aren’t met (which would in any case be a misuse of Article 16).

The border operation reflects the fundamental, long-term, structural problems of Brexit in general and the Northern Ireland agreement in particular, problems for which Gove is one of those most responsible. The problems it is creating were not ‘unforeseen’, they were set out in the government’s own impact assessment in October 2019 of the Withdrawal Agreement it had reached with the EU. This, remember, was the deal that Johnson hailed as a great triumph of his negotiating skills, the deal he sold at the General Election, the deal all Conservative MPs voted for, and the deal he signed barely more than a year ago.

So it is totally unreasonable to expect the EU simply to ignore all the practical consequences of what Britain has chosen to do to itself. Rather, it is for the British government to row back on its hardline decisions (in the TCA) about, for example, freedom to diverge from EU food hygiene rules. This in turn would reduce the extent of the sea border checks. Pretending they are something to do with the Friday mess-up is dishonest and opportunistic, and suggests that despite the government having met the initial crisis calmly it is now deliberately exploiting it to further antagonize relations with the EU.

It is hard to resist the thought that the government, and most certainly some of the Brexit Ultras, have always been intent on picking away at both the Withdrawal Agreement and the TCA at the earliest opportunity. And the illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill showed its lack of acceptance of the Northern Ireland Protocol. If it chooses to really ramp up a row over the Protocol, especially to the point of actually suspending it without legitimate grounds, then it may create a very serious situation for Northern Ireland, of course, but also for itself. Nothing could be better calculated to sour the UK’s relations with Biden’s new administration, for one thing. And it bears saying that the European Parliament has not yet ratified the TCA, so it is hardly a propitious moment to effectively renege on the agreements that were its prior condition.

For now, the Joint Committee has issued an anodyne ‘place holder’ announcement, and there will be a further meeting next week, but the omens are not good. We are only a month into Brexit, in the full sense of the end of the transition, and already key parts of it are coming apart at the seams.

The wider picture

The wider lesson of the current situation in Northern Ireland is of the need for this Brexit government to take responsibility for all of the unfolding problems of Brexit. For this week has again seen a slew of reports about the difficulties facing businesses across the UK, underscoring that, as Gove has admitted with respect to Northern Ireland, these are not ‘teething problems’ and are liable to get worse, not better. In a summary of the first month since the end of the transition, Lizzy Burden of Bloomberg News reports how “UK firms are being slowly ground down” by the new barriers to trade with the EU. The BBC Reality Check team provides a similar summary as does the Financial Times (£).

In all three reports there are links to some of the stories referred to in the last few posts on this blog – the evidence base for substantial and permanent damage to UK businesses is now growing, and increasing delivery times mean that UK manufacturing is “close to stalling” (£). Whilst the latter is due to both Covid and Brexit, the report shows that other countries, which are also suffering from Covid, are seeing a growth in manufacturing exports. So it seems fair to attribute the difference to Brexit. I don’t think it is hyperbole to say UK SME exporters to the EU are experiencing a bloodbath from which many of them are unlikely to recover.

It has now emerged that, apparently without having realized it, the government has permanently destroyed British shellfish exporters. There are also new reports of serious problems facing the fashion industry and, as with the situation facing musicians and other performance artists,  they arise ultimately from the end of freedom of movement of people but proximately from the UK government’s unwillingness to agree a mobility chapter with the EU as part of the TCA. That could, potentially, still be agreed if, as with the issue of food standards, the government were to change its hardline stance. Doing so would be far more important that the much-trumpeted opening of talks to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP). There’s nothing wrong with doing so, but its economic benefits will be nugatory and it is more designed to make a purely political point about ‘Global Britain’ and the supposed long-term opportunities of Brexit.

That is hardly a priority when businesses are on their knees right now and could at least partly be helped by improvements to the TCA. One thing which any ‘Global Britain’ worthy of the name should certainly be doing is extending the clearly inadequate June deadline for EU nationals to apply for ‘settled status’ (£), as well as simplifying the system and stopping the bone-headed refusal to provide paper documentation when settled status has been established. Doing so would not only be right but would head off what otherwise is going to be yet another monumental mess caused by Brexit.

Will the Brexit government take responsibility?

The full effects of Brexit, now that the transition period has ended and the TCA has kicked in, are still only beginning to be felt. Every single one of them discredits the claims made by Brexiters, including the idea that there was no need to extend the transition so as to allow a genuine implementation period. There’s no point in them continuing to deny these effects, or continuing to try to justify the false claims they made. Now, it is their responsibility to work to mitigate, so far as it is possible, the worst of the damage they have created.

It is difficult to be hopeful that this will happen, not least because of the apparently pathological inability of Johnson and the Brexit Ultras to tell the truth or to take responsibility for their actions. So it seems more likely that the same failings that created this mess will be repeated and repeated. The appointment last Friday of David Frost as the UK’s Brexit and international policy representative is an especially bad sign given that he was the architect of the TCA which is responsible for some of the damage. And with Johnson and Gove now apparently refusing to accept that the Northern Ireland problems flow from their own policies there is little reason to doubt that we are the beginning of years of acrimony and instability as the Brexit process continues to play out. As many of us feared and warned.