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’.

Cads!

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.

TL;DR

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.


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