Friday 26 March 2021

Almost quiet on the Brexit front

This will be a slightly shorter post than usual. That’s partly because this week I’ve been working on the proofs of my forthcoming book, Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to). Yes, that is a shameless plug – it will be published by Biteback in June and can be pre-ordered now.

But, more to the point, it has been a fairly quiet week for Brexit news, perhaps the quietest since the end of the transition. To the extent that much has happened it does not really require new analysis. There were some truly horrific figures produced by the Food and Drink Federation, based on HMRC data, showed a massive collapse in that sector’s exports to the EU. The year-on-year fall between January 2020 and January 2021 was 75.5%. That is not all attributable to Brexit (coronavirus being an obvious factor) but the fact that in the same period exports to non-EU countries dropped by just 11.1% suggests Brexit played a major role.

Exports to the EU of some products fell by colossal amounts, including salmon (98%), beef (92%) and cheese (85%). Former Brexit Party MEP Lance Forman, himself in the fish business, has claimed that the data, at least as regards salmon, are flawed, though offers no verifiable evidence for this. Be that as it may (or not), a House of Lords Committee report on post-Brexit trade in goods published this week identified significant new “structural barriers” to trade, and its parallel report on services trade tells the same story. Both are based on extensive evidence. Despite the attempts of Forman and others to revive it, the ‘Project Fear’ rebuttal is now effectively dead.  

There is no real surprise in this news, certainly not to anyone who has had experience of, or who has read about, what has been happening to export businesses over the last three months, as the posts on this blog have documented. So although it is important to continue to amass evidence of what Brexiters have done to our country there is little new that can be said about it beyond recording it. The ‘Kelemen archive’ continues to do just that (as usual when I refer to this, the link is to the entry at the time of my last blog post, in this case #306, so scroll down the twitter thread to see the most recent damage, and scroll up for the back catalogue).

Changing the post-Brexit narrative

What is more surprising is that there’s still no sign of the Brexiters, or Johnson specifically, paying any political price for the failure of their project. The general public seem largely unaware of, or uninterested in, the impact Brexit is having. That is partly because of coronavirus, obviously. But also perhaps they have already discounted it, or ascribed it to the EU, or decided that it is ‘just one of those things’. It may also reflect a view that Brexit, for good or ill, is in the past. If so, what becomes politically important is the nature of post-Brexit policy.

In a typically pellucid blog post last week, David Allen Green, the eminent law and policy commentator, pointed out – partly responding to my previous post about David Frost – that there exists a political vacuum in which no post-Brexit policy other than that of Frost and Johnson is on offer. Realistically, at least in England, that can only come from the Labour Party – not, of course, that as the opposition it could implement any such policy, but because it is best-placed to provide an alternative to the otherwise unchallenged narrative.

It’s true that some senior Labour politicians, notably the Shadow International Trade Secretary Emily Thornberry, have recently been raising important questions about the TCA and its effects, and Harriet Harman, from the backbenches, has suggested measures to ease restrictions on touring musicians. But Keir Starmer is not leading on it. Bobby McDonagh, the former Irish diplomat, has written a closely argued analysis and critique of Labour’s stance. Amongst his other points is that the longer the silence goes on, the more complicit Labour will become in the Brexit damage.

That complicity already exists by virtue of Labour having voted for the TCA but even so, as I have argued before, there is a ready-made, potent line of attack for Labour in denouncing not Brexit but what Johnson has delivered as a betrayal of Brexit. Obviously the Brexiters would seek to twist that to being an anti-Brexit stance, but all political parties have to accept that their opponents will attack them. If politics was completely bi-partisan it would no longer be politics. At the moment, as Robert Shrimsley argued in a perceptive article this week (£), Starmer’s Labour is fearful of taking a stance over a range of issues which include Brexit or flow from it

The point of critique would be Johnson’s dishonesty and incompetence rather than Brexit itself. But critique would not be enough. Labour also needs to articulate how, given where we are now, it would develop a different approach. That could include concrete ways in which the TCA could be built upon, for example in terms of a mobility chapter to assist service industries, and entering into a sanitary and phyto-sanitary and a veterinary agreement with the EU to assist food and agriculture industries.

More intangibly, Labour could make proposals to improve the tone of relations. These could include diplomatic recognition of the EU Ambassador and a re-commitment to working within, rather than in violation of, the Withdrawal Agreement and NIP. Apart from any short-term tactical advantages, if Labour are serious about forming the next government a significant strategic challenge will be the normalisation of UK-EU relations.

Behind the vaccines smokescreen

As regards those relations, what have of course been in the news extensively this week are the vaccine rows. For reasons I’ve argued before, I think it is bogus to view those rows through the prism of Brexit, an argument made cogently by Ruadhán Mac Cormaic in the Irish Times last weekend. The vaccines issues don’t provide an acid test for Brexit. Nor should EU statements about a possible export ban be read as a commentary on, or reaction to, Brexit, rather than as a reflection of the internal politics of the EU. After all, India’s announcement this week of an export ban (£) will affect the shipment of some 5 million doses to the UK, yet no one is interpreting that as indicative of India’s envy or resentment of the UK.

When not making opportunistic claims about the vaccination programme to justify what they have done, the other Brexiter defence of the extraordinary damage that is being done to trade is to say that it will lead to import substitution, with more goods being produced and sold within the UK. They are right to think that to some extent this will occur, and probably already is, although they are wrong to think that, especially as regards foodstuffs, it can be done without increases in the prices of some goods, shortages of others, and lack of the choice that British consumers have come to take for granted. And whilst surveys have shown that almost a quarter of these consumers say that Brexit has made them more likely to buy British food, that is very price dependent.

The import substitution argument is an ironic one in terms of the idea of ‘Global Britain’, and it is strange to see erstwhile free-market Thatcherites like John Redwood now embracing the long thought obsolete idea of economic autarky. But it derives from one of the longstanding and paradoxical dynamics of Brexit, that between Brexit as a nationalist and protectionist project and as a globalist free market project.

Many leave voters were persuaded on nationalist grounds, most obviously immigration, but the idea of local, British companies having been lost, and decisions about jobs being made in far off boardrooms was lurking in the background and could often be found on social media and vox pops. Theresa May’s 2016 conference speech reference to ‘citizens of nowhere’ was taken as a dig at cosmopolitans and perhaps especially remainers, but read in context it is also clearly to do with the links that she argued should exist between businesses and communities and that Brexit offered the chance of a re-set.

Selling-off control

In that context, the recent report of a massive new round of sell-offs of British firms to overseas owners (£) hardly seems to suggest the ‘taking back control’ that was promised. No doubt Brexiters will spin this as a sign of foreign investors having confidence in Brexit Britain, but the report makes it clear that what is happening is a cut-price sell off which has occurred since the end of the transition period and is due to Brexit (and the pandemic, but the correlation with the end of transition suggests that Brexit is the bigger factor) causing British companies to be under-valued.

Of course it was always nonsense that EU membership was the cause of the UK’s particularly lax approach to foreign ownership of its businesses. That was a choice of successive British governments, going back to the first Thatcher administration in 1979, which followed a very different path to, say, France or Germany. Despite some recently proposed reforms, mainly related to security concerns, this relative laxity continues, and Brexit has created even greater opportunities for global takeovers of British firms. Again this could be fertile territory for Labour, perhaps especially in the red wall seats.

So whilst Brexit, to the extent it is in the news at all at the moment, is being discussed almost solely through the lens of the vaccination roll-out and the possibility of an EU vaccine export ban it’s important not to lose focus on the more fundamental roll-out of Brexit effects. I suspect that within a few months the vaccine issue will have been largely forgotten and, certainly, that it will not in the long-term be the way Brexit is evaluated.

Friday 19 March 2021

The great Brexit bodge job

It has been a complicated week for Brexit news. If there is a unifying thread that runs through it, it is of the consequences not just of Brexit but of the particular way that Brexit was done becoming clearer. In parallel, there is a concerted attempt by Brexiters to ignore, deny, disown, obscure or distract from these consequences and the decisions they made.

Brexit and trade update

There can be no serious doubt now that Brexit is inflicting significant damage on UK trade with the EU, the only debate is about how great that damage is which won’t be known for a while. Last Friday, just as I was posting, the Office for National Statistics reported a massive fall of 40.7% in UK exports to the EU in January 2021, the first month after the transition period ended, with imports from the EU falling by 28.8% compared with December 2020. Some sectors’ exports have been devastated, most notably food and live animals which fell by 54%.

The ONS report allows some wriggle-room for Brexiters (which they are taking full advantage of) to downplay, if not deny, the extent to which Brexit is the cause, rather than the pandemic. This, of course, was to be expected not least because, even before the pandemic struck, they ascribed any piece of Brexit bad news to some other factor. In effect, they have set up a circular - or more accurately ‘unfalsifiable’ – argument. When the effects of Brexit were predicted they were dismissed as Project Fear because no one could ‘prove’ they would happen. Now the effects are happening they are dismissed as having another cause because no one can ‘prove’ they are down to Brexit. Thus, happily for them, no evaluation of Brexit is deemed possible.

However, detailed analysis by John Springford of the Centre for European Reform, which corrects for pandemic effects, and uses a sophisticated ‘doppelganger’ method to model Brexit against the counterfactual of no Brexit, finds a 22% fall in total goods trade with the EU in January. There is still scope to argue that some of this is explained by anticipatory stockpiling of traded goods and it remains to be seen the extent to which that was a factor, but some supply chain experts suggest it will not have had a major impact. The 22% fall comes on top of a 10% fall in UK-EU goods trade since the 2016 Referendum. These figures all relate to goods trade. The picture for services trade is more difficult to establish yet, and more difficult to separate from pandemic effects, but it is not going to be good (£).

Whatever emerges in the longer-term, there are two particular points that stand out. One is that, given that the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) established zero tariffs in UK-EU trade it follows that what we are seeing, and will see, are the effects of non-tariff barriers, including customs formalities, as well as of tariffs due to rules of origin in some cases. This is important, because going right back to the Referendum campaign, Brexiters continually failed to understand the difference between a ‘free trade deal’ and single market and customs union membership and, in tandem with that, focused far too much on tariff barriers to trade and, even within that, ignoring what rules of origin would mean for international supply chains. That was a conceptual failure, and one which is now beginning to be quantified. In turn, this shows the deep flaw in David Frost’s claim, mentioned in my previous post, that economic models over-stated the significance of non-tariff barriers.

The second point of note is that exports have been much harder hit than imports so far. The most obvious reason for that is that the UK has not yet introduced import controls and, indeed, announced last week that their introduction would be delayed by a further six months. That will be welcome news for importers, but creates a quite extraordinary situation, especially when viewed from a Brexiter perspective, since it means that British exporters face controls which EU exporters to the UK are spared, a disparity not lost on farmers, for example. I’m not sure that this was what Brexiters had in mind when they argued that German car makers would ensure that a good deal was assured, but it is certainly a good deal for them. It will also be handy for those minded to offload substandard or dangerous products into Britain’s welcoming arms. Again, I’m not sure if this is what Brexiters meant by taking back control of our borders.

The legacy of stupidity and arrogance

Why has this happened? The answer is in part, again, because Brexiters didn’t understand or accept what leaving the single market, even with a free trade agreement, would mean. Indeed it was not until February 2020 that any government minster formally and publicly admitted that it would mean border controls on imports. Beneath that lies an astonishing mixture of stupidity and arrogance. Even before Article 50 was triggered, Brexiters were agitating against the idea of any transition period to implement the terms of a future trade deal, and both the principle and the length of a transition were the subject of ongoing rows within the Tory Party throughout the Brexit negotiations.

In November 2016 the then Brexit Secretary, David Davis, of whom it is almost no exaggeration to say that every word he ever uttered about Brexit has been wrong, languidly opined (£) that he “wasn’t really interested” in a transition but might consider one to “be kind” to the EU. By July 2017 he said that the practicalities would be ‘doable’ for the UK without transition but countries like France, Belgium and the Netherlands wouldn’t be ready and would need extra time.

In the event, the original Theresa May exit deal set a transition period that was to have lasted from the then planned Brexit day of March 29 2019 until the end of 2020. Even then, she and other ministers insisted that this was an ‘implementation period’, when in fact there would be nothing to implement until a trade deal was struck (this also reflected persistent failures to understand that the trade deal and the exit deal were separate things). That would have given some twenty-one months to negotiate the deal and ‘implement’ it but of course Brexit day didn’t happen until January 31 2020. Yet the original end of transition date was not changed, and Johnson refused to extend the period, when it was possible to do so, even though the pandemic had already started.

Thus, now that it is exposed that the EU was, in fact, ready in time but the UK was not, the government is reduced to prolonging the one-sided introduction of border controls. Doing so is not a violation of any of the agreements with the EU and although, conceivably, it could violate WTO non-discrimination rules with respect to non-EU countries it is highly unlikely that this will lead to any action against the UK. Apart from anything else, these are still temporary measures and it would take far too long for a dispute to be raised – and in any case the WTO dispute settlement process is still in chaos.

The drive to ditch the Northern Ireland Protocol

What is much more serious is violating the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) by unilaterally extending the ‘grace periods’. This led to the EU this week beginning legal action against the UK for breaching the NIP, as well as a political letter complaining of bad faith. In normal times this would be a big news story, and perhaps a scandal. The combination of Covid, Brexit fatigue, and a lack of political opposition and public interest means that, now, it hardly registers - but the damage being done to the UK’s international standing is considerable. That damage is not just to relations with the EU but, potentially, the US.

It has been suggested by one influential Conservative commentator this week (£) that the politics of US involvement might move things in the direction of the EU accepting much softer arrangements for the Irish Sea border than those entailed by the NIP. The rationale for this argument is the claim, long made by unionists but now being adopted by the British government, that the NIP is itself a violation of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement (GFA). Since the Biden administration is committed to upholding that agreement then, the idea goes, it will support the UK against the EU in flexing or even dropping the NIP.

This argument was tested in a speech in the US this week by Dominic Raab, and explains his bizarre claim that the EU is erecting an Irish Sea border (when in fact this is what the UK and the EU agreed). He then sought to present this, or at the very least the way that it is being implemented, as a violation of the GFA. Presumably the same argument is being made by the senior official the UK has sent to Washington. Meanwhile, the EU and Ireland have recently made representations to Biden about the need to uphold the Protocol, with the St Patrick’s Day (virtual) meeting between the US President and the Irish Taoiseach providing a potently symbolic focus.

It is already clear that Biden’s administration is not going to accept the UK’s line. To his existing statements of support for the GFA, this week he went further in articulating his support for the NIP and, by clear implication, for the Irish Sea border which it sets in place. The most obvious issue in all this is, indeed, the fact the UK signed up to the NIP, and Johnson hailed it as a great triumph of his negotiation to have ‘ditched the backstop’ that had been in Theresa May’s deal. The government did so knowing full well what its effects would be, yet from the outset has pretended otherwise. Thus having, like Boris Johnson, denied that it meant an Irish Sea border, Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is now engaged in a new pretence, which is being echoed in the wider phalanx of Brexiter ideologues.

This pretence has two prongs. One is to suggest that the whole thing is just a triviality, almost a joke. So Lewis talks lightly of just wanting “the great British banger” to be enjoyed in Northern Ireland, as if checks on processed and chilled meats did not have a serious purpose. Lower down the Brexiter food chain the same dismissive sentiment is found, for example in  suggestions that the EU is prioritizing “the inspection of lettuce before peace in Northern Ireland”.

The other prong, which also relates to the claims about the GFA, is that the NIP was, somehow, provisional and a step towards, as Lewis calls it, a “permanent solution”. Down the food chain that appears in the false claim from Iain Duncan Smith (£) that the Protocol “was originally not intended to be permanent … the Withdrawal Agreement was very clear that the Protocol would be ‘superseded’”. In fact, the Protocol allows for the possibility that it (or parts of it) may be superseded by subsequent agreement, not that it “would be”. That could happen were the UK to align with EU SPS rules, for example, but not simply by ignoring them. (Smith also, wrongly, says that “the EU still hasn’t ratified” the Protocol which is, at best, a misunderstanding: it has, it’s the TCA which hasn’t yet been ratified.)

Whether Biden’s slowly hardening stance will make a difference remains to be seen, but as things stand it is clear that the UK is toying with the idea of not just violating the NIP but of trying to completely revise or even abandon it. That may only be the beginning, if the Brexit Ultras get their way. Already some are agitating (£) for the UK to renege on the financial settlement payments. It is easy to dismiss such calls as coming from fringe and peculiar figures – and few merit that description better than Mark ‘World War Two’ Francois, the culprit in this case – but the Brexit process has showed over and over again that what starts with such figures ends up being government policy.

Global Britain?

The irony that this should be happening even as the government trumpets its commitment to leadership in shaping global rules could hardly be more glaring. This commitment was part of this week’s Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy which ostensibly sets the strategic direction for Britain’s international role for years to come or, perhaps more candidly, articulates an overblown version of that role to appeal to voters’ nationalism and Johnson’s predilection for boosterish phrase-making. In effect, it reverses the British decision in the 1960s to retreat from ‘East of Suez’. Some argue that there is a logic to that, but political historian Professor Robert Saunders points out that the strategic and financial reasons for the 1960s decision still exist, and to an even greater extent.

This isn’t the place to discuss the review in detail, but from a Brexit perspective three things stand out. One is just that Brexit is what frames it – both because this is what Britain’s post-Brexit place in the world is meant to be and also because of the central emphasis placed on the Brexiters’ buzz word of sovereignty. The second thing is that, whatever its merits or otherwise, there is very little in it which could not have been done without Brexit and much in it that would have been done had Brexit not happened. The third is that it says relatively little about the EU, as opposed to bi-lateral relations with some EU members, as if to suggest that ‘Global Britain’ is above such parochialism.

That was certainly the implication of Johnson’s dismissive reference, when presenting the review to the House of Commons, to “the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy”. But it makes little sense. On the one hand, the UK’s foreign policy has never been constrained by, or limited to, the EU. On the other, in relation to many of its objectives the review will entail collaboration with the EU, for example over climate change, or would benefit from closer and more harmonious relations with the EU, for example over security. An ‘Indo-Pacific tilt’ is all very well if you like that sort of thing – though whether Britain has the money and resources to make it more than tilting at windmills seems questionable – but, as the Brexiters used to say, we are leaving the EU, not leaving Europe. So Johnson’s words might best be interpreted as showing a preference for grand gestures over mundane practicalities (indeed that also characterises his entire approach to politics, including Brexit), as well as an attempt to cock a snook at the EU.

Yet, in fact, the UK’s most pressing foreign policy and security need is to regularise its relations with the EU, not least as this is a prerequisite for improving relations with the US which, as the review affirms, remain the cornerstone of UK policy. Lurking beneath this is the recurring Brexiter idea that defence and security are primarily, or even solely, linked to NATO with the EU a near irrelevance. This is, at best, deeply out-dated, as the recent statement by NATO shows, and in relation to some of the cutting edge issues of cyber-security simply false. It is also hard not to raise an eyebrow at the recognition that Russia is the most acute threat to UK security, given that it is not necessary to posit Russian interference in the 2016 Referendum to recognize that Brexit was a huge gift to Putin.

The ingrained antagonism towards the EU is vividly illustrated by this week’s absurd accusations (in the headlines, even if the stories don’t sustain them) that it is suspending use of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine as some kind of anti-Brexit statement. Everything about that is nonsense. The EU is not suspending the vaccines use – and the EMA, the EU’s medicines regulator, has and continues to approve its use – but rather some individual states, not all of them even EU members. It may very well be that these suspensions are unnecessary, and it seems that many of them will be lifted very soon, but the idea that national regulators are animated by, or even remotely interested in, Brexit is preposterous. If this story shows anything about the EU it is that its individual members have, and can exercise, sovereignty in the same way as non-members. But, absurd as it is, it has taken root in the fertile soil of post-Brexit bellicosity in which, as per my last post, Brexiters remain obsessed with the EU and assume that the EU and all its members are obsessed with Brexit, so that in the UK the entire vaccine mess is seen through the lens of Brexit.

At first sight these two things - the vaccine rows and the Integrated Review - may seem very different, but they come from the same mentality, which is also evident in relation to trade. At the end of my previous post, I used the metaphor of a stroppy teenager storming out of the family home and it applies here, because that mentality licences both an imagination of the EU as malevolently tyrannical and a fantasy that ‘we don’t need them anyway’. The crucial link is that both responses are supposedly assertions of independence but remain bound by, and defined through, that from which independence is sought. If Global Britain is supposed to be a mature, self-confident, sovereign state exercising international leadership – though that is hardly how post-Brexit Britain appears to the bemused world - then Brexiters need first to lose that adolescent mentality.

Bodged Brexit

As these various post-Brexit realities play out, it’s worth separating out those things which arose inevitably as a consequence of Brexit, or of hard Brexit, such as the introduction of non-tariff barriers, from those which have arisen from the incompetent and dogmatic way in which (hard) Brexit has been undertaken. The timescale and preparedness issues are undoubtedly of the latter sort, as is the relentless antagonism towards the EU. Given that Brexit was, on any account, a major change in national strategy and, on the Brexiters’ account, a vital one, then it was entirely unnecessary to do it with such haste and with such ill-grace. That happened partly because the Brexiters didn’t know what they were doing but, more, because their hatred of the EU and, perhaps, the political calculations of the Conservatives about the threat from Farage led them to do a rushed, botched, bodged job of both the Withdrawal Agreement, including the NIP, and the TCA.

The consequences of that bodge job are becoming more and more evident with every day that passes. But just as their lies, ignorance and incompetence brought us to this situation so do the Brexiters now seek to address it with more lies, ignorance and incompetence. Almost everything that is happening now was warned of. The Brexiters were told over and over again what the consequences would be for trade, for Northern Ireland, for international relations. Every single time they did not just ignore the warnings but ridiculed them, and traduced those who gave them as misguided at best and treacherous at worst.

Now everything that they promised is coming unstitched but there is no contrition, and not even any recognition. Just more lies, and new lies about the lies they told before. No amount of grandstanding about Global Britain can conceal the squalid mess Johnson and his cronies have made back at home.

Friday 12 March 2021

Fisking Frost

This post will be slightly different to the normal round up and discussion of the week’s Brexit events. Instead, it will provide a detailed analysis of an article written by David (now Lord) Frost in this week’s Sunday Telegraph. This is worthwhile because the UK’s Brexit policy for the foreseeable future has effectively been sub-contracted to Frost by Boris Johnson. That is not to absolve the Prime Minister of responsibility – there can be no doubt that Frost’s approach to Brexit is one that Johnson favours – but he seems also to have lost what interest he ever had in its practicalities.

Thus Frost, despite the somewhat lacklustre career described in Nick Cohen’s acerbic profile of the former diplomat, currently enjoys very extensive power. Elevated to the cabinet, he now co-chairs the Joint Committee to oversee the Withdrawal Agreement, including the Northern Ireland Protocol, as well as the Partnership Council of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). He was, of course, the UK’s Chief Negotiator for both agreements. He has immediately, and apparently deliberately, brought a new pugnacity to these roles as discussed in my previous post. This is consistent with the way he conducted the negotiations with the EU which led to the two agreements.

The Sunday Telegraph article presumably informs the approach he will take to his new roles. It is tempting to dismiss it as Frost (and by inference Johnson) playing to the domestic gallery and the Brexiter audience, and no doubt there is an element of that. But I think such a dismissal misunderstands a fundamental point: Frost, in common with many Brexiters, really does believe what he says.

Dangerous delusions

In particular, he undoubtedly believes that his ‘hardball’ negotiating approach was highly skilled and the only way in which the EU was ‘forced to accept the UK’s terms’. Included in that supposed skilfulness was the ever-present threat of no deal (in relation to both agreements) and the threat to break international law with the Internal Market Bill (in relation to the TCA). This has been an article of faith amongst Brexiters, and they think it was lacking in Theresa May’s approach but demonstrated in Johnson’s.

It is nonsense, of course. Both the deals Johnson and Frost struck were substantially on terms set by the EU in the light of the UK’s – originally Theresa May’s – red lines. And so skilled were Frost and Johnson in making these deals that they had no idea of the consequences for Northern Ireland or for trade generally. The latest manifestation of their Laurel and Hardy incompetence comes with this week’s announcement that the government has got to postpone the already delayed introduction of import controls by at least six more months.

Additionally, my impression is that Frost, and probably Johnson, really does believe the doctrine of ‘sovereign equals’ (critiqued in an earlier post) to be a meaningful one. Indeed there is every sign, especially in his Brussels speech of February 2020, that Frost considers himself to be not just a negotiating genius but something of a philosopher. In reality, he peddles re-heated ideas about sovereignty culled from Edmund Burke, the eighteenth-century Conservative thinker, and imagines that they have purchase in the twenty-first century.

These are both dangerous delusions. In particular, they mean that Frost wouldn’t regard it as a criticism that he is creating antagonistic relations with the EU (£), but rather as a sign that he is doing a good job. If the EU does not retaliate it ‘proves’ he is right to stand up to its ‘bullying’ and justifies his approach. If the EU does retaliate it ‘proves’ it is not respecting British sovereignty and justifies his approach. In such a circular logic, a spiral of ever-greater antagonism is built in not as an unfortunate consequence but as a designed and desired feature. It is an approach which is already causing despair, not so much within the EU but amongst the British businesses which have to pay the price for it (£). And it is set to cost all of us dear.

Frost’s article

The article is headlined “Brussels needs to shake off its remaining ill-will and treat Brexit Britain as an equal”, and sub-titled “We are already seeing the benefits of gaining control of our own affairs”. Below, I reproduce the entire article, broken into sections, in italics, with each section preceded by my ‘headline’ and followed by my commentary.


“When I voted to leave the EU in 2016, I did so because I thought decisions about our country should be made by the people of this country. Polling shows that many voted to leave for the same reason – for democracy.”

It is a widely-remarked upon irony that this thirst for democracy should have led to an unelected politician placed by appointment in the House of Lords and the Cabinet being in control of Brexit policy. The point isn’t that such appointments are new – they have long been a feature of the British system – but that they sit uneasily with the Brexiter idea that what matters is that we can vote out the people who make decisions on our behalf if we don’t like them. No one voted for Frost. More importantly, as with the related idea of sovereignty, it is hopelessly naive – all kinds of decisions that affect this or any other country are not made by its people or by those they have voted for, and that will continue to be the case regardless of Brexit.


“Even now, the central importance of being responsible for our future as a country is often lost. The public debate about what happens now after Brexit is still at least as much about the details of customs and form-filling – important though that is – and not about the huge advantages we now have in being able to choose a government able to set our laws in every area of our national life.”

If it’s being lost in public debate “even now” that is because the practical consequences are becoming clearer. The rider “important as it is” can’t conceal the dismissiveness of the reference to “the details”. But what is really being coded here is Frost’s previous ignorant comment, in the Brussels speech, that “all these studies [of the economic impact of Brexit] exaggerate – in my view – the impact of non-tariff barriers, they exaggerate customs costs, in some cases by orders of magnitude”. That unsupported “view” is what informed the entire approach of the TCA as being focussed mainly on tariffs, and is now being exposed precisely by “the details” of what companies are facing. Quite simply, Frost got it wrong. So naturally he’d prefer public debate to focus on the vague notion of “being responsible for our future” than on his and others’ actual responsibility for the very definite realities of the damage Brexit is doing.

Nonsense #1

“The Treaty I negotiated last year reflects those central propositions about Brexit. It removes us from the EU’s laws, its rules, its courts, and its institutions, while keeping open and free trade between us. Many said it could not be done – but we did it.”

This is nonsense. The TCA did not ‘keep open and free trade’, it introduced massive new barriers to trade. No one said that could not be done. What many said could not be done was what was claimed by Johnson and others that the same, or even nearly the same, terms of trade could be negotiated for the UK as a non-member of the Single Market as it had had as a member (aka ‘cakeism’). The TCA demonstrated that this warning was completely correct.


“Some, I know, have criticised us for taking what they see as an ideological view of the negotiations last year, for prioritising sovereignty over the economy. But this is a false choice. Sovereignty and democracy are vital to economic success. Sovereignty is meaningful because it enables us to set our own rules democratically for our own benefit, and thereby become more prosperous. It is a conviction that we, the British people, will make better decisions for ourselves than others will on our behalf.”

This is just fluff or, as Frost has it, “conviction”, which might better be rendered as ‘blind faith’. Even if one were to accept Frost’s simplistic idea about sovereignty and EU membership then the economic performance of Germany, in particular, compared with the UK, whilst both were member states, shows that his linkage of sovereignty to economic performance is flawed. But, as with the issue of democracy, there is no reason to accept that simplistic idea anyway. Countries are liable to all sorts of rules (including those of the WTO) without their sovereignty being violated. And, as the very first Brexit White Paper stated, Britain did not lose sovereignty as an EU member, although “it has not always felt like that”. The same is true of the EU-27 sovereign states. The UK has no more sovereignty than it had before; it is just poorer, having paid out for an illusion.


“In our negotiations, it was clear right from the start that there was no world in which the EU would eliminate all trade barriers with the UK, unless we accepted the wholesale application of their rules and laws with no say in them. Instead, we chose to prioritise democracy and the control of our own destiny.”

This directly contradicts the claims Frost made above about the TCA keeping open and free trade, and in its acknowledgement of ‘prioritisation’ directly contradicts his denial of there being a choice between sovereignty and economic cost. It also directly contradicts the promises made to leave voters. That isn’t a minor matter – both during the campaign and for years afterwards voters were promised that there could be a deal which gave “the exact same benefits” and “frictionless trade”. Frost can’t simultaneously wax lyrical about democracy and controlling our own destiny whilst pretending those promises were never made to the electorate.


“I have always believed that the gains of controlling our own affairs outweigh the short-term adjustments. That is what Britain has chosen.”

It is a ‘belief’, like his ‘convictions’. But what is it based on? We are not, in any case, merely seeing “short-term adjustments” – these are the immediately visible manifestations of a longer-term structural shift for which evidence is now beginning to emerge (£).  And recall that even “short-term adjustments” are, again, not what leave voters were told to expect by Vote Leave, which said that there would be no “sudden change” because “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we begin any legal process to leave”. So it is hardly ‘what Britain has chosen’.

Disingenuous #1

“And we are already seeing the results of that choice. Opting out of EU vaccine procurement has had extraordinary results. It will enable us soon, I hope, to cast off all the shackles of lockdown and to return to the full freedom and normal life which a free people have every right to expect.”

Opting out is the key term. The UK did opt out, whilst governed by EU rules and law during the transition period. It could have done the same had it been a member. So this claim is disingenuous.

Questionable #1

“The introduction of our own tariff regime – one much less protectionist than the EU’s – will help hold prices down for the benefit of consumers.”

Expert analysis by the UK Trade Policy Observatory suggests it is questionable whether the UK’s new tariff regime is “much” less protectionist than the EU’s. It is true that the new UK Global Tariff schedule, which replaces the EU Common External Tariff schedule for trade on WTO basic (‘MFN’) terms, has removed tariffs on about 17% of products and reduced or simplified tariffs on about another 40%. But most of these adjustments are quite small, and overall: “the tariffs on over half of products have changed, but the weighted average tariff on goods imported from ‘MFN’ countries has fallen only from 2.1% to 1.5%”. In any case, the unilateral reduction or removal of tariffs isn’t necessarily a good thing. It may lead to lower prices but it may also increase unemployment in industries which become less protected from foreign competition. Moreover, it reduces the incentive for countries to do trade deals with the UK if tariffs have already been liberalised.

Irrelevant #1

“Our new, targeted, high-skilled visa will help us to drive innovation and secure our status as a Science Superpower.”

The UK could have done this anyway with respect to non-EU scientists and others, without losing the far easier route of freedom of movement for those from the EU which was hugely beneficial to UK scientific success.


“And Rishi Sunak’s Budget this week set out the eight new Freeports that will create jobs and spread prosperity across the country. As Minister for the benefits of Brexit, I aim to help drive through more such new opportunities, and drive through change for the better.”

Multiple expert reports (such as that from, again, the UK Trade Policy Observatory) show that freeports have little or no economic benefit (more details and links here). This is more fluff.

Disingenuous #2

“Unfortunately, the consequences of applying laws which do not fully enjoy consent have been all too clear in Northern Ireland in recent weeks. Northern Ireland is still subject to the provisions of the Ireland Protocol, which we agreed in order to protect the gains of the peace process and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement in all its aspects.”

The key point is that we – Frost especially – did indeed agree to it. So to say it lacks “consent” is disingenuous if it implies that, somehow, it has been foisted on the UK by the EU. And to say that Northern Ireland is “still subject” to the Protocol is disingenuous if it implies that, somehow, its provisions should not be applied or that doing so violates the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.


“Unfortunately, the action taken by the EU in late January on their vaccines regulation, and the improper invocation of Article 16, has significantly undermined cross-community confidence in the Protocol. As the government of the whole of our country we have to deal with that situation – one that remains fragile. That is why we have had to take some temporary operational steps to minimise disruption in Northern Ireland.”

This is hideously dishonest. The opposition to the Protocol preceded these events. Article 16 wasn’t invoked by the EU – invocation was proposed and then abandoned within hours. It did not create any ‘situation’, except to the extent that it is being used opportunistically by Frost and other Brexiters, and it is totally and completely irrelevant to the disruptions being caused by the Protocol, which derive solely from what the UK government agreed to, as well as its lamentable failure to be ready to implement it, compounded by its bone-headed refusal to extend the transition period.

“They are lawful and are consistent with a progressive and good faith implementation of the Protocol. They are about protecting the everyday lives of people in Northern Ireland, making sure they can receive parcels and buy the usual groceries from the supermarket. Without this threat of disruption, we can continue our discussions with the EU to resolve difficulties arising from the Protocol constructively – and we aim to do so.”

They are neither lawful nor in good faith to the extent that they are unilateral, and so violate the Protocol. They are in fact a deliberate provocation in line with Frost’s entire approach to negotiations. The disruption to everyday lives in Northern Ireland is real, but it is a direct result of what Frost negotiated and Johnson agreed. It could have been addressed by agreement had the UK chosen to, but Frost is actively seeking confrontation.

Nonsense #2

“Finally, this country now has a huge opportunity to shape the international scene for the better. In recent years it was too often claimed that Britain was no longer interested in playing a major international role. I never believed that. The British people are internationalist and want to make a difference in the world. Dominic Raab has now proven in practice that the ability to speak clearly and to act decisively is more important than being part of a large and inflexible bloc.”

This is simply nonsense. British Foreign Secretaries have always been free to speak and act independently of the EU and have always done so.

Questionable #2

“When we left the EU, we gained the ability – for the first time in 50 years – to enact independent national sanctions as part of a nimble, values-driven foreign policy.”

The value of an independent sanctions policy is highly questionable according to experts, the most obvious reason being that sanctions are far more effective when done in concert with other countries, as when the UK sought international support following the Salisbury attack by Russia. Conversely, having left the EU, the UK no longer has any influence over EU sanctions policy. In any case, UK sanctions policy is unlikely to become independent of the UN – and why should it be? As for UK foreign policy in general, this has never been a matter for the EU, and will be no more and no less “nimble” or “values-driven” as a result of Brexit. More fluff.

Irrelevant #2

“We have stood up for Hong Kong against the violations of the Joint Declaration by China. We are driving vigorous action in the G7 on Pandemic Preparedness. And we are bolstering our armed forces with the biggest increase in our defence budget since the Cold War, comfortably exceeding the Nato pledge of 2 per cent of GDP.”

None of these policies required Brexit, and none is made more effective by Brexit.


“With Boris Johnson as Prime Minister, our agenda is one of an outward-looking country, confident we can work with others towards common goals. That is our hope for our ties with our European friends and allies too. I hope they will shake off any remaining ill will towards us for leaving, and instead build a friendly relationship, between sovereign equals. That is what I will be working towards, acting constructively when we can, standing up for our interests when we must – as a sovereign country in full control of our own destiny.”

There’s very little sign of ill-will from the EU. From the start, there was regret and, during the negotiations, an extraordinary degree of forbearance which has now given way to exasperation. The antagonism and distrust have been created by the repeated aggression and dishonesty of the British government and Brexiters, for which Frost bears a particular responsibility in recent years. His call for a “friendly relationship” is transparently insincere given his actions. And the doctrine of sovereign equals is all but meaningless, whilst the idea that any sovereign country is in full control of its own destiny is little more than an adolescent fantasy in an interdependent world.

A sorry mixture

Taken as whole, the article is a sorry mixture of blather, nonsense, disingenuity and dishonesty. If I am right that Frost not only believes all this but even thinks it is pretty smart stuff, it is actually even more depressing than if he were playing to the Brexiter gallery. It shows how, for the foreseeable future, UK-EU relations will be framed, because Johnson has given Frost the power to do so.

This framing was not inevitable (£) and nor does it flow from the Referendum. That, like it or not, provided a mandate for Brexit, even if not in the form it has taken. Any such mandate has been discharged. The Referendum did not provide a mandate for the permanently hostile and antagonistic relations which Johnson’s government is now creating. Indeed Vote Leave promised that Brexit would mean “better relations with our European friends”.

The biggest irony is that, for all the talk of ‘breaking free’ and ‘taking responsibility for our future’, Brexit Britain remains absolutely stuck in its obsession with the EU. After all, we do not hear the ‘sovereign equals’ bleat in relation to any other international relationship. The country, as represented by Frost, seems increasingly like a stroppy, entitled teenager who has stormed out of the family home in a tantrum and now endlessly complains that his awful parents are disrespecting him. ‘Not only are they no longer housing me,’ he whines, ‘but they are insisting I clear my stuff out just because I promised to when I left. And I’m stuck with paying the rent on my new place because they won’t help me out any more. Don’t they realise I’m an adult now?’


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, as a paperback or e-book.

Friday 5 March 2021

Brexit unhinged

We’re now a couple of months into actual Brexit, in the sense of the end of the transition period, although still only in the first phase of complete implementation of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA). That is because there are some grace periods for aspects of the arrangements for the Irish Sea border and because of the delay in the imposition of import controls by the UK.

Northern Ireland grace periods

As regards the former, the government this week announced its intention unilaterally to extend these grace periods. This is going to cause a major row with the EU, a row the government has been itching to have for weeks, since such unilateral action flouts the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) and as such breaks international law. This is the first sign of David Frost’s avowedly more confrontational approach as incoming co-chair of the Joint Committee overseeing the NIP, and of course is a reminder of the crisis caused by the illegal clauses in the original Internal Market Bill in 2020, which nearly scuppered the TCA being completed.

Frost claims that the move is “temporary” and “technical”, but that isn’t the issue – what matters is that it is unilateral. It also seems unnecessarily provocative given that extension was under discussion and might very well have been agreed. There are genuine reasons why an extension is needed, for example in relation to processing parcel deliveries.

It now appears likely that the EU will seek legal redress and there may be political consequences too: the UK still needs the EU to confirm data protection and financial services equivalence, and indeed to ratify the TCA. The European Parliament has now postponed setting a date for TCA ratification in response and there does seem to be at least an outside possibility that it might refuse to ratify.

UK import controls

As for UK import controls, these have not yet happened not because, as some Brexiters imagine (the relevant part is about one minute into to the clip linked to), the UK is being ‘nice’ whereas the EU is being inflexible – it is because the UK was not ready. That, despite insisting that the transition period should not be extended, and despite having decided over four years ago that Brexit meant leaving both the single market and the customs union. As with the Irish Sea border issues, which the UK has known about since agreeing the NIP over a year ago, there is no issue of principle here, just the incompetence of the Brexit government. It is a testament to the profound failure of Brexiters to actually understand or accept the consequences of what they were urging and, perhaps even worse, of what they agreed to.

As things stand, from 1 April, the UK is due to introduce sanitary and phyto-sanitary checks and then, from 1 July, all other customs and regulatory checks will be made. It’s possible, of course, that, just as it is trying to do over the NIP, the government will delay full implementation, or will do so only with a ‘light touch’, not least because it is still not clear the necessary port infrastructure will be ready. Such a delay would not have the legal and political ramifications of breaking the NIP. Even so, it shouldn’t be imagined that it would be a cost-free decision because these checks serve a purpose in terms of ensuring, for example, food safety standards. Delaying implementation will certainly make life easier for legitimate importers, but will also increase the possibility of unscrupulous traders bringing in defective or dangerous products.

However, assuming the full checks are introduced as planned, then as reported this week it will create a ‘perfect storm’ right at the time that, hopefully, businesses are opening up again as Covid restrictions are lifted. Hospitality and catering businesses would be especially vulnerable. It is not even as if imports are unaffected by Brexit already. Whilst most attention has focused on the plight of British exporters to the EU, it has emerged this week that German exports to the UK (i.e. UK imports from Germany) slumped by 30% in January compared with the year before, reported to be directly attributable to Brexit. Since there are no import controls, this is presumably due to the VAT changes, customs charges and significant delays which are already stifling goods imports (£).

The first instalment of Brexit damage

So all of the Brexit damage since ending transition being catalogued so assiduously in ‘the Kelemen archive’ is really only the first instalment of what is to come (the link is to #202, the date of my last post: scroll down for damage since then, scroll up for damage before then). And whilst it is true that there is some evidence of improvement in, for example, the percentage of lorries being turned back at EU ports due to inadequate documentation, this means it is falling back from very high levels to a ‘new normal’ which is lower than the peak but higher than would otherwise be the case. It also probably reflects that some firms have simply given up on trading with the EU, as well as the re-routing of Ireland-EU trade, which is threatening to destroy Welsh ports.

We will see, as official figures come in over the coming months, the extent of the suppression of UK-EU trade – but it is a question of extent, not of whether or not trade volumes will be suppressed because, by definition, trade barriers mean less trade than would otherwise be the case. Yet you would hardly know from this week’s budget that Britain’s trading economy is in turmoil (£). The word Brexit wasn’t used by the Chancellor, though it was referenced in relation to the largely bogus idea of freeports (see sections 3 and 4 of the link), and perhaps in the implicit admission that ending freedom of movement wasn’t such a great idea. There was, however, a rare mention of the B-word by Keir Starmer in his response – perhaps a sign that he is renouncing his Trappist vow of silence on all things Brexit.

Meanwhile, looking further ahead, there will be another set of challenges for importers when, at the beginning of next year, the CE mark ceases to be recognized in the UK and all goods will have to bear the UKCA mark to be placed for sale in the UK market. British-made goods will, of course, also have to carry this mark, but, if they are to be exported to the EU, will need the CE mark. It’s exactly the kind of regulatory duplication that the single market avoids, and yet another way in which Brexit will increase business ‘red tape’.


It seems that the government is becoming sensitive to the growing realization that Brexit is just as damaging to the economy as the project formerly known as fear warned. Even with, as per my last post, the Labour party’s silence and a largely unchallenging media, the steady accumulation of negative news stories over the last two months is creating a narrative in which it is accepted, if only tacitly, that Brexit isn’t working in the way the Brexiters claimed it would. That may only elicit a resigned shrug from the general population, especially given the impact of Covid, but it is suggestive that Brexiters are losing their propaganda battle.

It is only in that context that the government’s astonishingly dishonest advertising campaign of the last week or so can be understood. It would have been easy to miss that there is a campaign because its dishonesty consists primarily in the placement of paid for stories in newspapers including the Independent, the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Evening Standard and the Metro, along with hundreds of local newspapers. It’s necessary to look very carefully to see that these are, indeed, billed as written ‘in association with the UK government’ or as ‘sponsored articles’. To all intents and purposes they look like legitimate news stories. This suggests almost a desperation on the part of the government to provide supposedly ‘good news’ about Brexit.

This desperation extends beyond the dishonesty of the means of dissemination to the content of the message. Some assiduous sleuthing by Anthony Robinson for Yorkshire Bylines found that the three companies profiled in several of the stories (specifically, those in the Metro and the Mail – the other ones linked to above seem to be mainly the same, but there are a few variations) are, respectively, very small, not exporting much, and a subsidiary of a Japanese company whose European headquarters is in the Netherlands. In other words, none is really representative of the many hundreds of SMEs struggling to export because of Brexit, and it has subsequently emerged that the owner of one of the businesses has been charged with embezzlement, theft and fraud. These companies, it has to be assumed, are the best examples the government could find.

If this seems somewhat unhinged – and the sort of use of public money that, surely, the Taxpayers’ (sic) Alliance should object to? – it is as nothing compared with the way the Brexit Ultras are conducting themselves. This week, a group of ERG MPs, led by Andrew ‘Irish passports for all’ Bridgen, wrote a semi-literate letter to David Frost bemoaning, as is boilerplate stuff for the Ultras, the barriers to UK exports caused by the Brexit they championed (but now regard, in Bridgen’s peculiarly Woosterish language, as the EU ‘playing the cad’) and proposing a retaliatory ban on imports of bottled water from the EU. They, too, seem to think that the lack of UK import controls is some sort of generosity by the government, whilst being bemused as to why the EU suddenly stopped ‘taking on trust’ UK exports on 1 January.

At one level it is laughable. This is not only the Brexit they campaigned for, saying that the UK ‘held all the cards’, it’s the trade deal they voted for only a few weeks ago. Now, they propose to embark on a trade war with the EU. At another level, it is serious, because it shows how the Ultras are now determined to permanently toxify UK-EU relations. Brexit was never going to be enough for them. Nothing would ever be enough for them. In some ways, the entire Brexit story comes down to that gluttonous insatiability and the inability of the British polity to impose any dietary restrictions upon it.

Bridgen et al.’s particular gripe at the moment is the EU applying its rules on shellfish imports from third countries such as the UK. This cause was taken up by the Brexiter DEFRA Secretary George Eustice in a letter to the EU’s Health and Food Safety Commissioner, complaining that the ‘ban’ was unjustified and had been sprung on the UK without warning. But alas - as reported again by Anthony Robinson in Yorkshire Bylines, who has become a great source for important Brexit stories - it emerged from her reply that Eustice himself had signed a letter to UK businesses back in December, explaining that these third country rules would apply once the transition ended. There was no impropriety in what had happened, nor any unexpected surprise. Eustice was either incompetent, or playing to the gallery of the fishing industry and the Ultras. Shades here of the embarrassing Francois-Barnier exchange of letters last July.

Taken together, these developments show the latest phase of a dynamic which has been present in various forms throughout the Brexit process. The government has to try to present the Brexit they have delivered as a triumph, whilst the Ultras have to present it as a failure and a betrayal of real Brexit. Johnson is now caught in that dynamic quite as much as Theresa May was, because it is about the disjuncture between Brexit as an actual policy and Brexit as a grievance campaign and a utopian fantasy. It’s a disjuncture for which he, more than perhaps anyone else, is responsible.

Growing tensions in Northern Ireland

This dynamic is set to continue for years, with Northern Ireland as its most dangerous fault line, as this week’s provocative and deeply irresponsible threat of “guerrilla warfare” over the Protocol from the DUP (Brexiters to the core, don’t forget) underscores. There is now a real possibility of events spiralling out of control. Last month saw the temporary suspension of sea border checks because of threats of violence against staff. This week the ‘Loyalist Communities Council’ which represents Loyalist paramilitary organizations - the UVF, UDA and Red Hand Commando – wrote to Boris Johnson withdrawing their support for the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement. The text of the letter makes it clear that the reason is the NIP, and Brexiters such as, notably, Kate Hoey were quick to emphasise this.

The letter does not in itself threaten violence, and states a commitment to “peaceful and democratic” opposition to the NIP. But, given its source, it can hardly be regarded as a benign statement and has the potential to, at the least, further destabilise an already tense and complex situation. As I wrote a few weeks ago, “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”. As I explain in that post, it is a situation which has its roots deep in the entire idea of Brexit, as well as the way it has been undertaken.

But even if that is regarded as ancient history, the situation it has now created calls for careful, patient and skilful diplomacy and not Frost’s bombast and Johnson’s carelessness, both of which are likely to inflame rather than defuse matters. There is now an urgent need not just for a less confrontational posture within the Joint Committee, but for the UK to recognize the diplomatic status of the EU Ambassador to the UK and to move quickly to restore goodwill and trust to the UK relationship with Dublin. Part of this would be to drop the bogus claim that the rising tensions are the result of the EU’s quickly abandoned plan to invoke Article 16 of the NIP over vaccine supplies.

The paramilitaries’ letter makes much play, as have Unionist politicians like David Trimble (who has also warned of the growing tensions that are resulting), of the fact that the consent of the people of Northern Ireland to the NIP has not been sought in the way required by the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement. I would not regard myself as at all qualified to comment on the complexities of Northern Ireland’s politics, but to the extent that Trimble appears to make a legitimate point, and to do so from a position of substantial authority given his joint award of the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in creating the Agreement, it seems to me that another legitimate point arises.

For it is Brexit itself which has given rise to the NIP and to the Irish Sea border – and the same would have been true for any other way of dealing with the issues Brexit posed - and yet the majority in Northern Ireland voted against it, by 56% to 44%. That seems to me to be the primary consent problem, and it derives from the flawed way the Referendum was set up, as well as from the Brexiters’ failure then, and in some cases even now, to accept what Brexit, especially hard Brexit, would mean for Northern Ireland. And Trimble himself can hardly be exempted from that as not only did he support Brexit, but he welcomed and supported Johnson’s deal which established the NIP and, at the time, said that it was “fully in accordance with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement”, despite the warnings of both John Major and Tony Blair to the contrary.

Yes, but vaccines …

As all this unfolds, there is an emergent, and again desperate, Brexiter narrative, encountered in their now Pavlovian response to any criticism of Brexit: ‘yes, but vaccines’. The idea here is that the undoubtedly more successful roll-out of Covid vaccines in the UK compared with the EU is the ultimate validation of Brexit. As usual, it is deeply disingenuous and opportunistic. It’s not, after all, as if this was the issue that Brexit was sold on in 2016. But, more to the point, as Martin Fletcher writing in the New Statesman explains, the UK could have done exactly what it has done if it had been a member of the EU. Indeed, the UK’s regulatory approval and procurement of vaccines, and the beginning of the vaccination programme, all happened when the UK was still bound by EU rules during the transition period.

The standard Brexiter response is that EU political pressure would have prevented this. But that is nonsense – and I also disagree with Fletcher's view that it would have been “politically harder” as an EU member – because the UK’s EU membership was always characterised by opting out of collective EU initiatives. And although counterfactual history is necessarily problematic, it’s not hard to envisage that had the Referendum gone the other way, and if there was still a Tory government facing great pressure from its own Eurosceptics and the Faragists outside, the UK would have been especially likely to use its freedom to act unilaterally, as an increasing number of EU countries are now doing (£). Anyway, if we are doing counterfactuals, who is to say that the EU response to Covid would have been the same had the UK still been a member?

In short, the ‘vaccines’ argument is entirely bogus. Which doesn’t, of course, mean that it won’t stick as the new common sense, fanned not just by Brexiters but by self-proclaimed “diehard remoaners” like Ed Cumming, the author of a fatuous piece about “self-loathing liberals” in last Sunday’s Observer.


So two months in things aren’t looking at all good. The government is reduced to planting disingenuous stories in the press about the success of Brexit, its ministers and backbenchers don’t understand or don’t accept the Brexit deals they voted for, and it now again proposes to break international law by flouting part of what it agreed to. Relations with the EU are more fraught than ever. The Northern Ireland peace process is under strain. The Ultras are proposing a trade war with the EU, whilst trade with the EU is in chaos with SMEs especially suffering, billions of pounds of assets have fled the UK, the Brexiters’ iconic fishing industry is close to collapse, and many of the new restrictions on trade haven’t even been implemented yet. We’re not even at the end of the beginning, and, no, vaccines don’t give Brexiters a get out of jail free card.

Last Saturday morning, in his invariably insightful weekly blog, RTE’s Tony Connelly wrote of EU-UK relations being at a “crossroads” between “perpetual tension” or “co-operation and friendship”. Less than a week on, several steps have been taken in the former direction. There’s every sign that both the UK government and the Brexit Ultras want to take us further down that road, to the relish of even more sinister actors. I very much fear that it is now too late to take the other path.

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.