Friday 9 April 2021

The ir/responsibility of Brexiters

The loud disputes between the UK and the EU of just a few weeks ago over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) have quietened and there has still been no public response from the EU to the UK’s new roadmap for its implementation (though there are rumours of “disappointment”[£]). Nor, so far as I know, has there been any public indication of what its contents are.

As per my post last week, I think this is only a lull: the Brexit government’s aversion to the Protocol is now very deep-rooted. That is the Protocol which is part of the Withdrawal Agreement it negotiated, claimed as a triumph, campaigned on in the 2019 election, and signed with the EU only a little over a year ago. It is also the Protocol which has as its core provision a permanent sea border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a fact mendaciously denied by government ministers, up to and including Boris Johnson.

This provision in turn arises from Brexit, or more accurately from hard Brexit. The facts here are so basic and so simple that they should not require repeating, but as events unfold there is perhaps a danger of them being forgotten. Hard Brexit did not flow automatically from the 2016 Referendum but was the interpretation chosen by successive British governments. It meant choosing to leave the single market and customs union, the institutions that prevent economic borders between their members. That meant choosing to create the need for an economic border with the EU and, as regards Northern Ireland, there is no politically acceptable place to put that border. Neither Brexit nor hard Brexit were the choices of the EU, they were not the choices of Ireland, and they were not the choices of the people of Northern Ireland.

Violence in Northern Ireland

Thus on the ground in Northern Ireland things have been anything but quiet, and the deteriorating security situation there, with the worst rioting “for years”, is becoming a matter of serious concern. Considerable care is needed in commenting on this from a Brexit point of view, especially when that comment comes from someone, such as me, who does not live in Northern Ireland and can claim no expertise in its complex politics.

Nevertheless, it is abundantly clear from numerous reports that Brexit, or more particularly the NIP, is a significant factor in the renewed violence from some members of the loyalist or unionist community, even though it is not the only one. Moreover, it has been stated on good authority that there is a paramilitary involvement in the latest violence – and although that is disputed, it is a fact that over a month ago loyalist paramilitary groups announced they had withdrawn support for the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement because of the Brexit deal. Perhaps worst of all, there are signs of a new generation, that had grown up with peace, now being drawn in, and there are also credible reports (£) of plans for an ongoing campaign of ‘civil disobedience’.

It is two months since I wrote on this blog that “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 Alliance Party MP Stephen Farry puts it, “Brexit has cracked Northern Ireland even though its constitutional status hasn’t changed”.  

The directions that will take are highly unpredictable, and there can be no pleasure whatsoever taken from saying ‘I told you so’. Equally, it cannot be pretended that what is happening in Northern Ireland has come out of a clear blue sky - as one might think from some of the news headlines.

No contrition from Brexiters

So it would be fitting for some of the high-profile advocates of hard Brexit – perhaps especially those who are also Irish unionists – to take some responsibility for having, at the very least, misunderstood its consequences for Northern Ireland (£). It is no good simply blaming it all on Johnson’s deal, for whilst that is the cause of the specific form that these consequences are taking, the fact that there would be consequences is squarely down to the hard Brexit that so many, including but not limited to Johnson, championed.

Where Johnson can be most heavily criticized - as Naomi Long, the Minister of Justice in Northern Ireland, implied, and former Northern Ireland secretary Peter Hain said in terms yesterday - is for not being “straight” about what his Brexit agreement meant. That, of course, grows directly from Johnson’s wider, pathological, dishonesty as devastatingly chronicled by the journalist Peter Oborne.

It is all but unthinkable that Johnson will acknowledge his responsibility, and there are no signs of contrition amongst the Brexit Ultras more generally. On the contrary, where they are not silent, at least some are doubling down on the same misrepresentations that have caused this situation. Thus the increasingly peculiar former Brexit MEP Ben Habib insists that the problems were caused by the EU and Ireland “weaponizing” the border issue, with the British government at fault for giving in by agreeing to the Irish Sea border (he doesn’t find it necessary to mention that he voted for this agreement when he was an MEP).

For an alternative, he falls back on the stock Brexiter misunderstanding (to put it charitably) that the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement does not prohibit a land border and that this is what should be created.  It’s as if all the endless debates and explanations of the entire issue over the last five years had never occurred. Worse, Habib even regresses to the pre-referendum nonsense spouted by Johnson and others that, somehow, the solution lies in the Common Travel Area (it doesn’t because that relates to the movement of people, not goods and livestock), or that customs formalities could simply be waived - in others words, denying the basic fact of the economic border that hard Brexit requires.

In a similar vein, Brendan O’Neill, the would-be contrarian editor of Spiked, predictably argues that “it was the failure to implement Brexit properly, not Brexit itself” which created the problems for Northern Ireland, and that, inevitably, is down to the – yes, same language, as if they all take dictation from the same Brexity algorithm - “weaponizing” of the border issue by the EU etc. What Habib and O’Neill also share is a strange inconsistency in which the Sea border is a terrible outrage and yet a land border would have been “a practical challenge that could have been straightforwardly resolved” (O’Neill) involving merely “filling in a few forms and submitting the odd lorry load of goods to inspections” (Habib). More fundamentally what they share, needless to say, is a complete failure to accept that they have any responsibility whatsoever for Brexit or any of its consequences.

Choices have consequences

The decision to enact Brexit as hard Brexit is also the main reason for the myriad of emerging economic consequences. It is difficult to keep up with the daily reports of the damage that Brexit is doing. As I wrote in my previous post, these are ‘micro-damages’ taken as separate stories, but in aggregate they suggest an alarming degradation of businesses and livelihoods. This week’s crop ranges from delays, barriers and charges faced by independent garages getting parts, small-scale antiques dealers, and chocolate makers. As ever, the burgeoning 'Kelemen Archive' is an invaluable record of the astonishing scale of the damage. One potentially important development this week is that the Labour Party has (£), really for the first time, pushed the government hard on the economic effects of the trade deal. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a sustained strategy or a passing moment.

There is also still an ongoing stream of news stories about the post-Brexit problems facing British immigrants in EU countries. It’s important to make two distinctions here, both of which appear to elude the Brexiters and, for that matter, much of the media. Firstly, what is at stake is not how ‘the EU’ is treating these people, because each individual member state (being, Brexiter ideology notwithstanding, sovereign nations) has its own rules and procedures. Secondly, there’s a difference between those problems caused by member states not understanding or applying the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement (£) and those which are simply entailed by Brexit itself, or, once again, at least by Brexit in the hard form chosen by the British government.

That issue of choice is central, and yet still evaded by Brexiters. A recent symposium with Michel Barnier was illuminating in his stress upon the point that he also often made during the negotiations: that choices have consequences. It seems so obvious as to hardly need saying, but even now, and perhaps especially now, it does. For in relation to Britons’ freedom of movement in the EU, former Brexit Party MEP Lance Forman is still perplexed that they should no longer have these rights, as if that were somehow not entailed by the policies his party had advocated and the agreements which he, like Habib, voted for when he was an MEP.

Contorted logic

Of course this can be dismissed as just the problem of a sightly dim ex-politician, but its roots go much deeper, and explain a lot of the mess the Brexiters have created. Part of that is to do with the strange phenomenon, which I’ve discussed many times on this blog, of the way that many Brexiters seemed to think that whilst leaving the EU was a matter of vital necessity nothing much would really change as a result. But it is also to do with the weird arguments that they constructed around that; especially weird in relation to British ‘expats’ in the EU given the centrality many Brexiters placed on ending freedom of movement of people as the rationale for Brexit.

In the latter case, those arguments took two forms. One was that British people had moved to continental Europe to work, study or retire long before joining the EU, so Brexit was irrelevant. That was fatuous because it ignored the way that doing so was far more difficult before membership, and far easier afterwards. But it was doubly fatuous because it posited that freedom of movement rights had made no difference for British people’s free movement whilst arguing that they had made it far too easy for those from the EU-27 (as was).

The other, still on display in the present news stories, was that British immigrants in the EU were beneficial to the EU (spending money, paying taxes) whilst those from the EU were a drain on the UK. That was nonsense in itself as regards EU nationals in the UK, but was also a version of the ‘German car makers’ argument that ‘they need us more than we need them’. Both versions were at best economically illiterate and at worst insufferably arrogant, and both have now been comprehensively discredited. Yet they live on.

Will Brexiters take responsibility for what they have done?

When Article 50 was triggered, I wrote that from then on Brexiters would be responsible for whatever happened (the same argument was more eloquently made by Jay Elwes in Prospect). Four years on, it is clear that, on any objective criteria, there isn’t a single claim they made for Brexit that has come true. Economically, that has been obscured by the pandemic to a degree. The vaccine rollout has also given a temporary alibi and, notably, is about the only claim for the benefits of Brexit they make any more. But it didn’t require Brexit and, very likely, within a few months’ time the difference between the UK and EU record will have disappeared and become irrelevant.

As Mujtaba Rahman, the respected and influential Eurasia Group analyst puts it, “looking in rear view mirror, a lot of the drama [over UK/EU vaccine performance] of the last few weeks will look v[ery] silly indeed”. Already the Brexiter thunder over the treatment of the AZ vaccine in some EU countries (inevitably they ignored that of non-EU countries) looks even sillier in the light of emerging changes in the UK’s approach. As I have been arguing for weeks, viewing the vaccines issue through the lens of Brexit, or vice versa, was always nonsense.

Even so, the vaccine rollout will certainly be cited by Brexiters for years as a justification but – based on the inordinate amount of time I spend lurking on pro-Brexit sites, in an attempt to understand their views - I have the sense that it is already a rather half-hearted one, knowingly grabbing at straws. The far more dominant mood amongst the Brexit hard core is that their dream has been betrayed and, in a now recurrent phrase, that ‘this is not what I voted for’.

However, that certainly doesn’t mean that there is likely to be some great moment of realization that Brexit is a mistake, in the way imagined by, for example, William Keegan of The Observer. For the hard core, the keyword is indeed, as it was always going to be, ‘betrayal’: they still see no flaw in Brexit, only in how it was done, which they attribute to politicians in general (Theresa May especially and Boris Johnson partly), to the ‘remainer Establishment’, and to the EU. Indeed if there were one single thread running through Brexit it would be that Brexiters never, ever accept responsibility for their choices and the consequences of those choices. It is always someone else’s fault.

Will Brexiters be held responsible for what they have done?

That may be different for those outside the hard core of leave voters, but it’s the last and most enduring of the remainer illusions to think that there will be a sudden shift in which the country comes to its senses. Nor is there likely to be a moment of justice in which the guilty are arraigned or shamed.

More likely, though even this is by no means certain, there will just be a long, slow process – akin to what happened with other once-bitter polarizations such as those over Munich or Suez – through which Brexit becomes widely understood, more though an osmotic process than as a result of particular events or arguments, as a humiliating failure.

For the time being, at least, opinion polls suggest that that has yet to happen and that, excluding ‘don’t knows’, the leave-remain split is … 52% to 48% (page 9 of download). Of course strictly speaking asking how people would vote in a new leave-remain referendum makes no sense now that Brexit has happened but another poll shows a 46% to 43% split on the question of whether in hindsight it was right or wrong to leave the EU. There’s very likely some temporary ‘vaccine’ effect in these figures, but despite the self-evident failure of Brexit to deliver its promises, and the clear damage it is doing, support for it has proved remarkably durable. It’s a fact that has to be faced.

I think that, in turn, this means that there may never be a reckoning, in the sense of a holding to account of Brexiters for what they have done. Notably, there hasn’t been a single leading Brexit campaigner who has recanted. It’s possible to imagine some of them doing so in political memoirs decades hence, though I suspect most will go their graves unrepentant and blaming others. And perhaps, even probably, history books will treat Johnson much as they have Chamberlain or Eden, and with better cause, but that will be too late to matter much.

It's not fair, but then we learn in the nursery that life isn’t fair. Most of us also learn that our choices have consequences, and that we should take responsibility for them. It is a lesson for which the Brexit leaders were apparently absent.

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