Friday 11 June 2021

Britain's Brexit shame

As pre-figured in my previous post, UK-EU relations are now entering a crunch period which started with Wednesday’s meeting of both the Partnership Council and the Joint Committee (the former overseeing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, the latter the Withdrawal Agreement). It took place at a time when, in the apt title of Tony Connelly of RTE’s latest blog (which also gives a fantastic summary of the issues at stake) “bad faith and brinksmanship” meant the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) was “on the edge”.

It remains there, since no significant progress was made and, notably, there was no joint statement made, just separate UK (PC, JC) and EU (PC, JC)  statements. At the last Joint Committee meeting there had been a joint statement (there has never been a meeting of the Partnership Council before), so this was in itself a sign of acrimony and perhaps of the difference in approach (£) between David Frost and Michael Gove, the previous chair.

In the run up to the meeting there were some bellicose noises from Frost and other government ministers, as well as widespread reports that the EU is running out of patience and liable to take retaliatory action for the UK’s failure to fully implement the NIP*. Lurking in the background were sinister images of balaclava-clad loyalist marchers in Northern Ireland, protesting against the Protocol.

As long-term readers of the blog, or anyone who has followed Brexit with any attention, knows, these latest events have been years in the making. They go right back to the false pre-referendum assurances, given by Boris Johnson and others, that Brexit would make no difference to Northern Ireland’s borders. That wasn’t just the beginning of the story but, in some ways, the whole of the story because, fundamentally, right up to the present time, neither Johnson nor the Brexit Ultras generally have truly accepted that Brexit requires a border somewhere. Even when the Irish Sea border came into force, they denied it existed. To the extent that it is undeniable that it does now exist, they have misrepresented this as being due to EU – and sometimes Irish – intransigence.


There’s no point in finessing a basic fact: Brexiters have consistently lied about Northern Ireland (and much else besides) and the consequences are now coming back to haunt them, and all of us. They lied about what Brexit meant for Northern Ireland, and they lied about what they agreed for Northern Ireland. Johnson is the most obvious culprit, but it goes much wider than him: they almost all lied or at least misled.

For example, on the specific issue of the movement of sausages across the sea border – much in the news this week, and discussed further below – Michael Gove stated categorically in a TV interview that it had been agreed that this could continue. Anyone listening would take that to mean that it would go on forever, as he didn’t mention that what had actually been agreed was a six month grace period that is now about to expire.

That was nested within the bigger lie that the Withdrawal Agreement, including the NIP, would ‘get Brexit done’ when in fact it marked the beginning of an ongoing process. It also goes much deeper than Northern Ireland, because it is fundamentally about what departure from the single market and customs union meant for the UK in general and they lied about that, too.

Again – and apologies for this, but it is hard not to keep repeating points as events keep bearing them out – I’ve written endlessly on this blog about how Brexiters seemed to treat Brexit as being, somehow, symbolic rather than having concrete legal, economic and political effects. The corollary of this was denouncing those who warned of these effects as ‘remainer saboteurs’ and, as the warnings come true, treating it as the fault of the EU. It’s a mindset that has been in evidence again this week in George Eustice’s complaints that rules about third country products, such as sausages, are “a peculiar quirk of EU law”, and in the now ubiquitous moan from the government that insisting on such rules is “legal purism”.


The latter phrase is a telling one in that it reflects the ‘we’ve left but we shouldn’t be treated as if we’ve left’ mentality: it’s the law, but only ‘purists’ would actually enforce it. It also has echoes of the earlier proposal to break international law but only in “a very specific and limited way”. It isn’t, to say the least, a defence to rely on in court. It is also, in its own way, revealing. For it implicitly concedes that the EU is perfectly within its rights to expect the UK to comply with what was agreed.

The ‘sausages’ rule example (actually just one part of a broader set of regulations for chilled meat products, but focusing on ‘the great British banger’ is better for Brussels-bashing headlines) is also part of the wider dishonesty of Brexiter (il)logic, which again goes back years. Its basic form, familiar from the ‘Project Fear’ rebuttal line, is to reduce any argument against Brexit to an easily dismissed absurdity. Thus warnings that it would reduce trade were rendered as claims that all trade would cease; or suggestions that the EU had kept peace amongst its members were rendered as claims that leaving would lead to World War Three.

The more developed form we are seeing now is to sneer that regulations about something so banal as sausages are a sign of EU pettiness, thus ignoring the many and substantive issues of public health that food regulations are needed to deal with. At its deepest level, this is part of the ‘anti-ruleism’ that permeates Brexiter thinking.


This isn’t just dishonest, it’s also profoundly childish. Indeed, it’s not always clear that Brexiters consciously lie in the claims they make. Just as often, it seems as if they are like toddlers, oblivious to the constraints of cause and effect but having tantrums when those constraints become manifest. A prime example is the superbly deranged rant this week from Allister Heath in the Telegraph (£), wailing that the Protocol “was imposed on the UK by the EU at our moment of greatest weakness” (although, almost needless to say, at the time Heath extolled its virtues). No mention here of “holding all the cards”, of a “great oven-ready deal” or even of being “sovereign equals”. It might best be summarized in the words of every red-faced, bawling infant ‘it’s not fair’.

Just about every sentence in David Frost’s article in the Financial Times (£) this week - which clearly set out his approach to the subsequent meeting - can be read in the same way. I won’t provide the line-by-line rebuttal that I did for a previous, similar, article, although almost every line within it is again either untrue or a distortion of the truth. Its central feature as regards the details of NIP implementation, including the issue of chilled meat products, is the argument that the UK has come up with a reasonable proposal in the form of an ‘equivalence’ agreement on standards.

But this is simply to restate the main ongoing bone of contention, in that what is needed is an ‘alignment’ agreement, not an ‘equivalence’ agreement (see my post of 7 May for more detail on this important distinction). It’s dishonest to pretend that this is a viable solution: it’s been clear not just for months but since at least December 2017 (!) that it would not fly**.


More fundamentally, the core proposition within Frost’s article, that the experience of operating the Protocol has shown its unexpected problems, is a flat out lie. We know this for a fact, because civil service briefings at the time that it was agreed show that ministers were told of the problems that would occur, something underlined this week by the former DExEU Permanent Secretary. On the narrow issue of chilled meats, we know that the government already knew the ban was in prospect in the absence of regulatory alignment. We also know that within days of the NIP coming into effect Johnson was threatening to suspend it, and that soon after he explicitly tasked civil servants to find ways around its provisions (£).

It has also long been obvious, and given new weight by Gavin Barwell’s comments this week, that Johnson’s government agreed and signed up to the NIP whilst always intending, as Barwell puts it, “to wriggle out of it” later. That was done for domestic political reasons – to be able to campaign in an election on the ‘oven-ready deal’ platform (not, be it noted, a ‘this is a terrible deal but we were forced to sign it’ platform) – but doing so marked a crucial new moment in the Brexit saga, and one which was deeply dangerous and irresponsible. Before, what was at stake was a horribly dishonest domestic debate about Brexit. Afterwards, that horrible dishonesty got written into an international treaty.

In other words, it was the moment when Brexiters shifted from lying to electors (and perhaps to themselves) to lying to the outside world.

The EU’s dilemma

This presents the EU with an almost insoluble dilemma, not simply over the chilled meats issue but over the multiple ways in which the NIP isn’t being implemented by the UK. How do you deal with a country that continually lies and cheats in a way unlike a normal state, yet is not a rogue state either?  With a country that keeps saying it wants only to be a friend, but keeps behaving like an enemy?

If the EU does nothing then, bit by bit, the NIP will be undermined and, ultimately, there will be a gaping hole in the border of the single market and customs union. The UK will, indeed, have wriggled out of the commitments it made in bad faith and growing ultimately from Brexiters' refusal to accept the need for a border.

On the other hand, the dispute resolution systems and retaliations open to the EU under the Withdrawal Agreement are rather slow and fairly limited, and invoking them will inevitably provoke UK accusations of ‘bullying’ and ‘punishment’. It may be that the days are long gone when anyone in the EU cared much about bad headlines in the UK press. But the fact that Frost and others are using the UK media so extensively to make their case suggests to me that they are preparing the ground, domestically, to claim that their ‘reasonable efforts to be cooperative’ have been rebuffed by the EU and that, combined with the putative EU retaliation, will be used to justify something much more confrontational.  Most obviously, that might include triggering Article 16, something the British government has repeatedly threatened almost from day one, Edwin Poots is urging, and Frost has refused to rule out.

This would then create an even more difficult situation for the EU and presumably that is why, for now, all it is doing is giving warnings of retaliation if the UK undertakes any more unilateral violations of the Protocol. At the same time, Ursula von der Leyen has signaled that the EU will seek to influence Johnson by ‘discussions in the margins’ of the current G7 meeting which, interestingly, Frost is also attending.

What happens now?

No doubt the EU will also continue to seek support from the US to pressurize Britain into complying with the NIP or, better still, taking the obvious route of agreeing to sanitary and phyto-sanitary regulatory alignment, as offered by the EU. For the most ludicrous feature of the whole situation is that a relatively easy solution exists were it not for Johnson and Frost’s insistence on a dogmatic idea of ‘sovereignty’. The Biden administration has even suggested this week that alignment would not imperil a trade deal with the US.

Things will come to a head soon. Presumably the desire for good optics for the G7 summit is at least one reason why, despite his bellicose newspaper articles, Frost didn’t escalate the dispute with the EU this week. But time is running out. As I mentioned earlier, the grace period which was agreed with the EU last December allowing movement of chilled meats and meat preparations (including sausages) across the sea border ends on 30 June.

If there is no negotiated agreement to extend it there will be significant disruption. If the UK unilaterally extends it – as it did for some of the other grace periods earlier this year, the subject of ongoing legal dispute – which Frost also refuses to rule out, then the EU has indicated that this will be the point at which it will take firm retaliatory action, regardless of what that may then provoke from the UK. It is hard to see how it could not do so: at some point a line has to be drawn unless the EU is going to accept that the NIP isn’t going to be implemented.

Some reports this week have suggested that the EU could fall back on an emergency plan that would place some border checks between Ireland and the rest of the EU. Personally, I think that is unlikely to happen. It would certainly mark a radical departure from the solidarity with Ireland that the EU has shown throughout the Brexit process. And even if adopted on a supposedly temporary basis it would surely morph into a permanent situation if the UK simply sat back and did nothing, as it surely would. If the implication is that the EU will do all it can to prevent an escalation of conflict with the UK then I would think that agreeing a temporary extension to the chilled meats grace period to be more likely. It won’t resolve anything, but would buy a little time in which something might turn up. Not a great strategy but maybe better than the alternatives.

Biden’s intervention

The hope might be that the already quite strong intervention from the Biden administration this week will concentrate Johnson’s mind. I am not sure it will. This isn’t, as yet anyway, like the Suez moment, when the US brought naked diplomatic, political and financial pressure to bear upon the UK. For now, the US is pressing for a “negotiated settlement” that does not “imperil or undermine the Good Friday Agreement”.

That may well be code for calling on the UK to honour the NIP, but it doesn’t say that in terms. The UK government argues, no matter how mendaciously, that it is indeed seeking a negotiated settlement that upholds the Good Friday Agreement “in all its dimensions” (which is also code, implying that the NIP as it stands tilts against the unionist community).

Moreover the government’s statement that Johnson and Biden had agreed that the EU and the UK should find “pragmatic solutions to allow unencumbered trade between Northern Ireland, Great Britain and the Republic of Ireland”, if accurate, is, in its reference to mutual pragmatism, exactly the line that Frost is taking, and is bizarre anyway since there is no way that trade can be unencumbered now. As for the official joint statement, it didn’t explicitly mention the NIP at all.

Tellingly, Johnson shrugged off the idea that there were any differences with Biden over the NIP, claiming he’d simply agreed on the need to “get it sorted out”. So, in private if not in public, the US may need to take a much harder line than it has thus far to have an impact.


I don’t write much about my personal feelings on this blog, but I don’t think I can be alone in feeling a deep sense of shame at the blatant dishonesty of Johnson’s, Frost’s, and the British government’s behaviour over the NIP. Brexit was bad enough in itself, but this continuing and continuous lying and cheating is truly disgraceful. It demeans Britain and even those of us who bear no responsibility for it are in turn demeaned.

That links directly to the childishness I referred to earlier, which is in turns infantile and adolescent. There’s something profoundly mortifying about seeing serious politicians and officials in the EU having to put up with the mewling self-pity, the broken promises and the endless aggressive insults of Brexit Britain. And there’s something sphincter-tighteningly embarrassing about the ‘wait till your father gets home’ sense of having to look to Biden to inject some discipline into proceedings.

It is grimly ironic that this goes on at the same time as, reflecting the never-ending Brexiter obsession with World War Two, Johnson crows about ‘renewing the Atlantic Charter’ against the backdrop of an aircraft carrier. Grimly ironic, too, that his government goes on endlessly about pride in being British and showcases its “GREAT Britain and Northern Ireland” campaign whilst doing so much to shame and sully Britain’s reputation.



*The Brexit saga has gone on for so long, and become so convoluted, that it can be hard to remember what some of these things mean, but for a detailed explanation of what implementing the NIP involves there is an excellent report from the Institute for Government.

**The article linked to at this point actually needs some further explanation because, confusingly, it has David Davis talking about ‘regulatory alignment’ as a solution but further down it becomes clear that what he actually means is, indeed, ‘regulatory equivalence’. Nested within the article is a link to an Institute for Government explainer which helps to show why equivalence isn’t a solution: in brief because it does not bring with it a commitment to stayed aligned, so is a form of ‘cakeism’. Frost is currently going round the same old loop, albeit in circumstances where the exit deal has already been signed, rather than those in which it was still under negotiation.

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