Friday, 4 June 2021

Brexit means Brexit and we're making a mess of it*

The entire Brexit process has been depressingly repetitious in all kinds of ways, none more so than the endless complaints over the last five years that the EU is ‘bullying’ or ‘punishing’ the UK for having left. So there’s some small pleasure in identifying what might be called a new variant of the Brexiters’ self-pity virus in a piece this week in their house journal the Express. On display there was the original strain (the EU has to punish the UK to deter further ‘defections’), along with the more recent Frost mutation (the EU has yet to ‘adjust’ to the UK being sovereign). But nested inside was the slightly different version that the EU’s ‘belligerence’ is in fact “an early sign that our split will be a resounding success”. So what was originally proposed to be an attempt to stop Brexit being a success is now reconfigured as a round of applause for it.

Only in the strange world of Brexiter logic could such a leap be made and, though of only passing interest in itself, it is a development which has a wider significance. It is part of the way that despite having achieved their dream of legal detachment, and on far more distant terms than most of them actually dreamt of, Brexiters remain not just psychologically attached to the EU but obsessed with it. The counterpart of that is an imagination that the EU remains similarly obsessed with Brexit whereas, as Georgina Wright of Institut Montaigne commented in relation to the Express article, UK-EU relations are now very low on the list of EU priorities. In short, the EU has moved on, but the UK is stuck.

A parallel universe

But Brexiters are not only still obsessed with the EU, they are also still fixated on what they see as domestic appeasement and betrayal. Thus in the heartlands of Brexiter discussion, such as on the Conservative Woman website this week, along with all the usual stuff about EU “bullying” and “blackmail”, the “theological (sic) lecturer and Anglican clergyman” Timothy Bradshaw declares that “we all know that Brexit remains in the balance as the Remainer establishment of Whitehall and Westminster continues their [sic] so-far-successful campaign to keep the umbilical cord uncut from Brussels”. Within this article’s extraordinary parallel universe, replete with countless misrepresentations or misunderstandings, especially about the Northern Ireland Protocol, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Brandon Lewis are supposedly “scared witless by the EU”, Dominic Raab is denounced as “a latter-day Europhile” (yes, really), whilst David Frost is suspected of deploying “combative rhetoric … for public consumption only”.

Such sentiments were always going to prevail amongst the most committed Brexiters because, to reprise a longstanding theme of this blog, any actual delivery of Brexit would be seen by them as a betrayal. Plus, in a grim irony, Johnson, with his hardline approach to Brexit, is finding what all his predecessors have found, and what he himself used to come to power, namely that no approach will ever be hard enough to satisfy these committed Brexiters, including many on his own backbenches. But it would be quite wrong to dismiss this as the pitiable rantings of a few obscure or fringe figures. Rather, it is part of a much wider and ongoing battle to shape the narrative of what Brexit means and what it has done to our country.

Thus the relentless claims of external bullying by the EU and internal betrayal by remainers, apart from being the standard tropes of Ur-fascism, provide cover for the already obvious negative economic consequences of hard Brexit. There are almost daily reports of businesses and whole sectors damaged, of labour shortages (£), price rises and, beyond economics, of the damage to UK global standing and influence. Since the supposed ‘national liberation’ has so patently not led to any ‘sunny uplands’, it is necessary to claim that ‘true’ liberation has yet to be achieved. This also explains why the Brexiters cling so desperately to the false claim that Brexit enabled the UK to have an independent vaccines delivery programme. For, false as it is, it is about the only thing that has stuck in public discourse as a practical benefit of Brexit. Hence, too, the ongoing though much less successful attempt to present trade deals as such a benefit. And hence the gesture politics of, for example, deploying an aircraft carrier to the Indian Ocean or building a new Royal Yacht (£).

Northern Ireland: still the central issue

Nowhere are the claims about EU punishment more evident, or more dangerous (in a literal, physical, sense), than in relation to the Northern lreland Protocol (NIP). Again, whilst the tirades of bloggers like Bradshaw might easily be dismissed, such claims matter when they come from figures like the new DUP leader Edwin Poots. Poots, who wants the NIP scrapped in its entirety, accuses the EU of using Northern Ireland like “a plaything” and of not caring about the peace process, and blames the Protocol for rising violence. In fact, as many commentators and politicians within Northern Ireland pointed out in response, the NIP (unlike Brexit itself) enjoys widespread support amongst the people of Northern Ireland.

Obviously Poots objects to the NIP because of the Irish Sea border, because, correctly, he sees it as undermining the union. But the line about it undermining the peace process and the Good Friday/ Belfast Agreement (GFA) is the opportunistic one which, earlier this year, Brexiters like Dominic Raab belatedly tried to mobilise in the belief that it would have more cut through with the US (and, perhaps, the EU). I assume that the thinking is that because this argument was the reason an Irish land border was rejected then it will also lead to the Irish Sea border being rejected.

But even without assessing the merits of that thinking in its own terms, it has two very obvious problems. One is the same as has existed ever since the UK decided in 2017 that Brexit meant hard Brexit: were it to be accepted then where would the border go? The Brexiters still have no answer to this question except to fantasise that a border is unnecessary anywhere. Even their old stand-by that the answer is ‘technological solutions’ is no longer available as an argument against the NIP since if it were true such solutions existed then why can’t they be deployed at the sea border?

The other problem is that it is too late. The NIP isn’t, in its substance, any longer a matter for negotiation. It forms part of an international treaty agreed and signed by the UK government. The time for the UK to decide it violated the GFA was before doing so. Certainly neither the EU nor the US are now suddenly going to say that it does so. Rather, both are insisting that to preserve stability in Northern Ireland the NIP must be implemented, not re-negotiated.

For some weeks now there have been intense technical talks about NIP implementation, and a crunch point is likely to come with the expected ‘stock-taking’ meeting of the Joint Committee next Wednesday. This (at least this period, if not necessarily this single meeting) has the potential to be another watershed for what Brexit means and for what sort of country post-Brexit Britain is going to be. Just as happened after the vote to leave the EU, again after leaving the EU, and once again after the end of the transition period, there is a choice as to whether to persist with a sour, resentful hostility towards the EU, as if Brexit were something done ‘to’ Britain rather than by Britain or, even, that the EU had forced Britain to leave.

That perverse inversion of the truth is now pervasive with, for example, Matthew Lynn writing in the Spectator this week that the UK “has been frozen out of the single market” by the EU, as if leaving it had not been the UK’s choice. It is also evident in the amnesia that allows the government to forget not just that it agreed the NIP but that it pronounced it a triumph, and so to pretend that it was imposed upon the UK. And it is evident in the now almost daily moans about Britons being ‘denied’ freedom of movement rights to, in particular, Spain. In short, there is still a widespread refusal amongst Brexiters to accept that Brexit means Brexit.

Britain faces another choice

On the NIP specifically, there are reported to be solutions in sight to many of the operational difficulties and, on the biggest of them, an offer from the EU of a veterinary agreement, potentially on a temporary basis. Such a ‘Swiss-style’ arrangement is generally understood to mean that about 80% of the border checks would be abolished. Poots, in familiar ‘Ulster says no’ mode, is adamantly opposed to the latter (because, of course, it would be about making the Irish Sea border work more smoothly, whereas the DUP don’t want it to work, they want it dropped entirely).

The question, then, is whether Johnson and Frost are also going to ‘say no’ to these facilitations which would largely solve the implementation problems? Might they even, as they keep threatening, seek to suspend the NIP using Article 16? If the former, then the same rows rumble on with, coming up fast, the end of the grace periods for the NIP and, more generally, UK import controls still to come. If the latter, the rows intensify into a crisis.

Factors in these decisions include the extent to which Johnson and Frost genuinely have a blind ideological commitment to their peculiar concept of sovereignty, the extent to which they see advantage for their electoral base in maintaining permanently antagonistic relations with the EU, and, relatedly, the extent of the pressure from Brexit Ultras within and outside the Tory Party to do so. Also potentially relevant is what pressure comes from Joe Biden (£), who will meet Johnson a few hours after the Joint Committee meeting, to accept the EU’s offer of solutions.

So it remains to be seen what will happen but, as things stand, reports suggest that so far the technical talks have yielded only limited agreement. This isn’t surprising, because the scope for technical agreement is ultimately a political issue. Frost continues to say that the NIP is “unsustainable”, whilst the EU’s Ambassador to the UK says that there is no alternative to it, and points out that the UK has failed to suggest a viable alternative. What Frost continues to propose, and claims to be a “pragmatic” solution, is not viable because what it means, in effect, is for the border not to be fully enforced.

In short, once again, Frost’s idea is that Brexit shouldn’t mean Brexit. More specifically, he is effectively saying that the NIP (which he negotiated) shouldn’t mean the NIP. And testimony this week from Sir Jonathan Jones (the former head of the Government Legal Service who resigned over the illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill) confirms what had long been suspected: even as it agreed the NIP the government did not really accept, and always wanted to find ways round, what it had signed up to. It is important to keep recalling that this dishonesty and irresponsibility is what lies at the heart of the current problems.

All this seems to suggest that no agreement on how to implement the NIP is in prospect, and a reliable (i.e. Tony Connelly) report this morning says that the EU is both pessimistic about the prospects and rapidly running out of patience. If so, and the UK’s decision is, again, to wallow in resentment and anger then it will mean remaining in the cul-de-sac where post-Brexit Britain is, effectively, stuck as Brexit Britain – that is, unable to move on from all the debates and battles of 2016. This would mean that relations with the EU continue to be viewed entirely through the now dead question of whether or not Britain should leave the EU. In turn, that will mean being stuck in the performative gesture politics of ‘Global Britain’ grandstanding. Meanwhile, if Connelly’s report that the EU may take retaliatory measures over the failure to implement the NIP proves correct, then, under the new variant of Brexit logic, Brexiters will treat this as sign of success.

It doesn’t have to be like this

There are alternatives, which would focus not so much on gestures as concrete practicalities. For example, the Institute for Government this week produced a report urging a strategic and joined-up approach to managing regulatory divergence. Meanwhile, there are some suggestions of enhanced defence and security agreements between the UK and individual member states of the EU. There could also be an immediate and serious correction of the unfolding scandal of how EU nationals are treated at UK borders.

I’ve argued may times in the past that had Brexiters been both more competent and more confident they would have approached the entire Brexit process in a spirit of generosity and cooperation, rather than in the dog-in-a-manger way they chose. It’s still not entirely too late to change this. But of course the obstacles are formidable, most especially because of the dogged attachment of the most extreme Brexiters to continued hostilities. Ironically, another, though smaller, obstacle is that some erstwhile remainers scoff at the possibility of the kinds of limited ‘de-escalations’ just mentioned, and certainly it’s true that none of them is going to recreate EU membership or compensate for Brexit. So one pole insists that cooperation with the EU is pointless as it renders Brexit a failure, whilst the other insists that Brexit is a failure which renders cooperation with the EU pointless.

Be that as it may, the key issue in the immediate term – meaning, even, the next couple of weeks as regards the NIP situation – is the current government’s stance. The completion this week of the first annual deal with the EU on fishing rights (£), as well as the recent decision to recognize the EU Ambassador, might be taken as small signs that this stance is becoming more conciliatory, but are negated by Frost’s continuing bullishness about the NIP. In a sense the government has hamstrung itself by the fact that this hardline approach to the Protocol makes good relations with the EU impossible whilst still being insufficiently hardline to satisfy the insatiable Brexit Ultras, including the DUP, who want to scrap it altogether.

Certainly at some point in the future a UK government needs to become both more conciliatory and, simply, more realistic about UK-EU relations (this, I think, should be the core of Labour’s future European policy). The longer that takes, the more difficult it will become as the already eviscerated goodwill will become harder to rebuild with each month and year that goes by in the present mode.

It is that which, at least in part, explains the Brexit Ultras’ dogmatic insistence on depicting the EU as malign, illustrated in microcosm by immediate reactions to the announcement of the fishing rights deal. No agreements on anything, ever, with the EU will satisfy them. They want to create a relationship so damaged as to be beyond future repair, believing that if the earth is not completely scorched then the ‘remainer establishment’ will find some way to plant the seeds that might, even, lead eventually to re-joining. The deepest irony is that, for all their accusations against remainers, it is this dogmatism that also prevents any possibility of ‘making a success of Brexit’. That is why they are making such a mess of it.


*The saga has been going on for so long that some may have forgotten that the full version of Theresa May’s early line was “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a success of it”.


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My book Brexit Unfolded. How no one got what they wanted (and why they were never going to) will be published by Biteback on 23 June 2021. It can be pre-ordered from Biteback, or via other online platforms, as a paperback or e-book.

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