Friday 18 June 2021

Johnson and, um, integrity

In my previous post, I argued that I did not think that Joe Biden’s intervention, for all that it was reported to be diplomatically forceful, would make much difference to Boris Johnson’s conduct. In brief, my suggestion was that, by talking in terms of a pragmatic negotiated solution between the UK and the EU to the problems over the Northern Ireland Protocol which did not imperil the Good Friday Agreement, Biden was framing the issue in a way that Johnson could claim as being precisely what he was trying to achieve.

Events since then seem to have confirmed that view. Within hours of the Biden-Johnson meeting, first Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and then Johnson himself were continuing to talk in the same uncompromising terms as before about the supposedly unacceptable nature of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). In fact, the terms became even more uncompromising. Last week, the ubiquitous complaint was about the “legal purism” with which the EU was enforcing the NIP. Now, perhaps recognizing that this sounded like a rather lame bleat, the language has changed to the much more ominous phrase that the NIP violates the “territorial integrity” of the United Kingdom.

It has a horribly war-like sound to it. That is all the more disturbing if imagined in the ears of “Ulster’s men of violence” who Neil Mackay wrote about in a chilling article this week in The Herald. He warns that “the threat of murder hangs in the air thanks to Johnson’s Brexit”. Yet as Rafael Behr suggested this week (in an article with many other important points): “Johnson’s calculation doesn’t prioritise peace in Northern Ireland … [if it] … is on fire, any insistence from Brussels on maximum implementation of rules on sausage imports will look callous and disproportionate”. 

It need hardly be said – not least as I did so at length last week – that Johnson and his government are being grotesquely dishonest. They are also being deeply irresponsible. The ongoing weaponization of the EU’s brief and aborted proposal to invoke Article 16 in order to legitimate, if not exacerbate, loyalist anger is a prime example. But the latest formulation of insisting that the NIP undermines the UK as a “single territory” is especially odious because, in agreeing the NIP, Johnson agreed that the UK was no longer a single customs and regulatory territory. On the other hand, as the NIP states, and as David Frost confirmed in an appearance before the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee (NIAC) this week, it is not true that it affects the territorial integrity of Northern Ireland in the sense of changing its constitutional status. So there is a double dishonesty in both understating what was agreed and overstating, in the most inflammatory way, what that agreement meant.

What explains the Johnson-Frost approach?

It may seem puzzling that Johnson is so cavalier as to defy US diplomatic and EU economic pressure. But I think that most of the explanation for that is quite easy. He and Frost genuinely believe that their ‘hardball’ tactics pay dividends with the EU and have very little political downside. They believe that they, unlike Theresa May, ‘stood up to’ the EU and that is why the ‘hated backstop’ was removed, even though the EU had said the Withdrawal Agreement was closed. It might be remarked that all they achieved by this was to get the NIP which they now say is unacceptable. But it is clearer than ever that from the outset they saw it as something they could get out of, as they are now trying to do. I am sure that they also believe that it was the threat of the illegal clauses in the Internal Market Bill that served to push the Trade and Cooperation Agreement over the line. And they undoubtedly believe that the unilateral extension of grace periods has shown the EU that the UK will ‘stand up for itself’ whilst attracting limited and slow retaliation from the EU.

Of course all of these beliefs are, at the very least, questionable and some of them are demonstrably absurd* But that doesn’t stop them being genuinely held. In a sense, they represent only the extension of the tactics which the Brexit Ultras used so successfully in the domestic pursuit of their aims: to keep pushing in a harder and harder direction, to refuse to compromise, to bank any compromise offered by others, and then to push for more. In those terms, the EU might currently be seen as caught in the same situation as, back in the day, those moderate Tories who thought that rational compromise was possible with the ERG, and who neither realised the ruthlessness of the Ultras nor were able to match it. It remains to be seen whether the same continues to be true of the EU, so that it, too, will continue to try to find flexibilities and compromises as, indeed, many urge. Or whether it will conclude that enough is enough and start taking a much tougher line.

For Johnson, it hardly matters as this is a win-win situation as regards his domestic political base, which as Behr and many others observe is far more important to him than his, or Britain’s, plummeting international reputation. If he keeps pushing hard and the EU ‘gives in’, or can be represented as doing so, then he claims victory and receives the glowing adoration of his base. If the EU were to push back hard then he claims the heroic status of standing up to ‘foreign aggression’ and also receives the glowing adoration of his base. In the Brexiters’ ever-present vocabulary of the Second World War, for Johnson the first scenario is VE Day, the second Dunkirk. Those of us who do worry about what this does to Britain’s reputation are probably not Johnson’s supporters anyway, whilst those who support him are not so much indifferent to, as unaware of, that reputational damage.

Biden’s limited impact

And what of Biden? For all his manifest sympathies with – and commitments to – the EU and Ireland, his public statements so far are not hugely unhelpful to Johnson and not hugely helpful to the EU. In inviting ‘both sides’ to negotiate, the US pushes the EU as well as the UK and, at least subtly, implies that it is not just a matter of implementing the NIP ‘as agreed’ but seeking an interpretation of it. As Gideon Rachman acutely wrote (£) this week, the Biden administration’s “overriding concern is that the dispute should be settled, not the terms of the settlement”.

There is an important rider to that: the one thing that Biden will clearly not tolerate is a land border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. So simply ripping up the NIP, as the DUP and some Brexiters want, is a non-starter and, notably, Johnson has made no suggestion that he will do so. Instead, the approach is clearly going to be one of pushing to dilute and dismember its substance, pretending all the time that this is just ‘pragmatic implementation’ of what was agreed rather than reneging. And Biden doesn’t seem as if he is going to put much weight behind, for particular example, the EU’s stance on sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) regulatory alignment as against the UK’s demand for regulatory equivalence. Add the threat, and increasingly possible reality, of Loyalist violence into that mix and the UK’s attempts to depict the NIP as undermining the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement may gain traction.

In other words, despite the increasingly ‘Orbanized’ flavour of Johnson’s regime that Gerhard Schnyder has rightly identified, he isn’t going to risk becoming a genuine international pariah. As I implied in my last post, this actually makes the UK harder to deal with from an EU perspective, since Johnson is dishonest and belligerent without being completely beyond the pale of international relations.

Moreover, leaving all of this to one side, Johnson’s government may well have concluded that, precisely because of Biden’s manifest sympathies, Britain isn’t likely to get many favours (£) from the current administration anyway. So, unless Biden were to decide to put real pressure on, there’s not much to be lost by playing hardball with the EU.

What happens now?

It’s clear from Frost’s NIAC appearance that this will indeed take the form of, in particular, continuing to push for an equivalence agreement on SPS standards. The irony is that one of the biggest obstacles to the EU agreeing to that is because it requires investing a lot of trust in the UK, and it is the UK’s own conduct which makes that an obstacle.

Some of that goes back years – perhaps a defining moment* was in December 2016 when David Davis back-peddled on the phase 1 agreement of the Article 50 talks within days of it being made, saying it was just a ‘statement of intent’. Strikingly, this was the original version of the Irish Sea border solution, subsequently abandoned in favour of the backstop before being, effectively, revived as Johnson’s great new deal. There are also parallels between what Davis said then and the Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis’s highly dishonest suggestion this week that the NIP is “a policy document as much as anything else” when in fact it is a binding treaty. More generally, the lack of trust has become far worse under Johnson and it is getting worse all the time, precisely because the EU’s concession of allowing a third country to manage the border of the single market is being abused.

In the immediate term, the UK yesterday made a formal request for a three-month extension to the chilled meats grace period. The EU is assessing this but if it doesn’t agree then, very likely, the UK will unilaterally extend, daring the EU to respond, and, in relation to the more general situation will continue to threaten to invoke Article 16 (£) and possibly even do so. Actually, that isn’t the panacea Frost and Johnson appear to believe, at least not for the problems of Northern Ireland, but that wouldn’t be the motivation. Rather, it would enable them to continue to ‘up the ante’ with the EU, citing the rejection of the chilled meats extension as just cause.

My guess is that the EU will agree the extension. This would ‘kick the can down the road’ until October when, in any case, the other grace periods (i.e. those which the UK has unilaterally extended) expire. Obviously that would resolve nothing, but the rationale would be to avoid an immediate crisis during the Northern Ireland marching season. But, sooner or later, a crisis seems inevitable, if only because of the UK’s approach, outlined earlier. Johnson and Frost would read EU acceptance of the chilled meats extension as a victory for their threat to do so unilaterally, and continue to push for an SPS equivalence regime. If that were to be granted then, as per the approach outlined above, Frost would push for something else.

Imperial preference

The other main Brexit-related story this week was the agreement in principle of a UK-Australia trade deal. As discussed in many previous posts the value of this is purely symbolic – for example, what it means for cheaper prices for UK consumers looks likely to amount to 1p per person per week. However, the costs to British farmers may turn out to be considerable. Or perhaps, in practice, it will make little difference to anything. But it is surely telling that, in Australia, it is being reported in terms of the UK’s desperation to sign, and Dmitry Grozoubinski, a former Australian trade negotiator, describes it as an “unprecedented result” for Australia. No ‘hardball’ negotiating strategy from the UK in these talks, it seems, but why would there be when all you want is a deal, any deal, as quickly as possible? (For discussion of the agreement, and links to even more discussion, see Sam Lowe’s latest Most Favoured Nation newsletter).

I think the best way of understanding the symbolism of the deal is to compare it to another story this week, headlined in the Express as “Pounds, inches and pints set for comeback in Brexit freedom overhaul”. There is even the obligatory reference to Churchill, this time in relation to his preference for pint bottles of champagne. This may seem a rather niche issue, but it has always been a live one to a certain segment of Brexiters, going back to the (admittedly absurd) ‘Metric Martyrs’ cases which some even claim led ultimately to Brexit itself. It is an issue which still, as the report shows, burns bright for the rather peculiar Tory MP Philip Davies.

Yet, despite what the headline might be taken to imply, there are in fact no plans to scrap metric measures. What there is – although it was published after the Express story – is a proposal (17.1) in the TIGRR report to allow traders to use imperial measures without the equivalent metric measurement if they wish. How many will do so, and how many customers they will have, is another question. Very few, I would imagine.

Although the Australia story is far more prominent, it is of the same type in that the realities beneath the bold headlines are trivial. It is interesting that for years remainers have been accused of patronising leave voters and insulting their intelligence, yet the Brexiters’ strategy of symbolism over substance in claims of Brexit gains is as patronising and insulting to such voters as could possibly be imagined.

As for the TIGRR (Task Force on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform) report more generally, it is a hodge-podge of platitudes about technology, things which didn’t require Brexit, and things which do but may prove rather foolish if implemented. It is the product of the group chaired by Iain Duncan Smith to identify post-Brexit opportunities (some might say the time to do that was before the referendum) and it has already apparently been superseded by the announcement of a new unit to do the same thing. It seems as if, along with all the extra customs bureaucracy, Brexit is now generating a new form of red tape in the proliferation of bodies charged to identify how Brexit can get rid of red tape. I don’t see much point in reviewing the report’s contents until we see which, if any, of its recommendations actually get adopted (but there has been an initial take from Joe Marshall of the Institute for Government).

A date with Boris Johnson

For understandable reasons, most media attention this week has not been on Brexit but on the slippage of the 21 June date for ending Covid restrictions. But the two are linked, in various ways. In particular, so much of what has driven both his Brexit and Covid policies has been Johnson’s stubborn insistence on setting artificial dates without regard for the consequences. Again, Rafael Behr’s column this week has much of interest to say on this theme, including a particularly acute observation about the Withdrawal Agreement (of which the NIP was of course a part). He says that for Johnson “it was a single-use tool for levering himself out of a tight spot. For Brussels it is the chamber into which Britain levered itself”.

But actions have consequences. Whatever Johnson’s motivations, his actions created a legally-binding treaty with obligations. This cannot just be laid at the door of his pathologically immoral character, because what he agreed was voted for in Parliament by all his party’s MPs (and, let it not be forgotten, by Brexit Party MEPs in the European Parliament). And, unlike his private peccadilloes, the wreckage and pain of now pretending that what was agreed was not agreed will affect us all.


*The link here is to the relevant segment of an interview, conducted by the UK in a Changing Europe centre and published this week, with Stefaan De Rynck, a senior member of Michel Barnier’s Brexit Task Force. The full interview is here.

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