Friday 30 July 2021

Articles of faith

In the years before the Referendum – long before this blog started, so I haven’t kept links – I quite often came across pro-leave people explaining, usually in rather lofty tones, that leaving the EU would be very simple because everything was all set out in Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. Prior to that, there had been no formally defined exit mechanism. Its creation had been partly as a reassurance for the countries that joined in 2004, but it had the support of what were then called Eurosceptics in the UK in the hope that, one day, it would be their portal to ‘freedom’.

Invoking Article 50

If we have learned nothing else since 2016, it is surely that Article 50 offered only the broadest of frameworks for withdrawal, and “invoking” it was only the beginning of a complex process. So having so enthusiastically lauded Article 50 as the answer to their prayers, the most committed Brexiters actually approached it in a variety of quite contradictory ways.

One, espoused by the Vote Leave campaign documents (slide 11), was to say that “we will negotiate the terms of a new deal before we start any legal process to leave”, meaning prior to invoking Article 50. This was impossible (and rejected by the EU before the Referendum votes had even been counted) and was rarely mentioned again after the Referendum result. The second, espoused from time to time by UKIP, was simply to leave without invoking Article 50 at all. This would have been perverse, since it wouldn’t have made any of the issues involved in leaving disappear, though, quite astonishingly, it seems to be what Dominic Cummings still thinks could have happened, and he also believes the EU would have entered negotiations prior to triggering Article 50.

The third, soon dominant, idea was that Article 50 should be invoked as soon as possible, and that any delay represented backsliding and was the province of the “enemies of the people”, so immediate invocation became a test of Brexit fidelity. A final idea, which for many months Theresa May’s government, including at the time Boris Johnson, appeared to believe, was that both exit and future terms could be agreed within the Article 50 period. This was simply false.

The underlying mind-set

All this is old history now, but worth recalling because it reveals a mind-set which has not gone away and which is coming to the fore again. It was evident on the many occasions in 2018 and 2019 that Brexiters – including Rees-Mogg, Farage and Johnson – talked of ‘invoking GATT Article XXIV’ as a way of, supposedly, securing a temporary trade deal even if no exit (let alone trade deal) had been done. It was nonsense and, notably, although Johnson referred to it during his campaign to be Tory leader during an excruciatingly embarrassing interview with Andrew Neil, he never mentioned it after that. But the same mind-set is on display now in the numerous calls and threats to ‘invoke Article 16’ of the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP).

What is the mind-set? I think it has three, related, aspects. One lies in the image it conveys of the UK having unilateral control – it ‘invokes’ things and, as such, appears to be the active party without having to have regard for other players, notably the EU. The second is that, for all their supposed disdain for expertise, Brexiters are adept at using what to the general public sounds like ‘expert jargon’ which, when delivered in dismissive or authoritative terms, gives the impression of great mastery of technical detail when, in fact, none exists. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it suggests that there is a quick and easy short-cut to solve complex and intractable problems.

As regards the NIP, it is now abundantly obvious that Johnson’s government also saw that as a short-cut to ‘solving’ Brexit, without understanding or caring what it meant. The same goes for the Brexiter MPs and MEPs who voted for it in the British and European parliaments, although some of them seem to have persuaded themselves, or been persuaded by others, that it would lapse once a trade agreement was reached. Hence, even now, dullards like Iain Duncan Smith say (£) that the NIP was “always seen by both sides as a temporary solution”. This is a flat-out falsehood. Unlike May’s ‘backstop’, this was a ‘frontstop’ agreement that existed permanently and independently of any trade agreement or of there being no trade agreement at all. The two were connected only to the extent that had the trade agreement been a ‘deeper’ one, then the nature of the Irish Sea border would have been correspondingly ‘thinner’ (e.g. in terms of the extensiveness of checks).

Invoking Article 16: and then what?

Whether it was always intended or only later decided that the NIP would be reneged upon, the idea that ‘invoking Article 16’ offered a way out of what had been agreed first surfaced as early as January 13 2021, when Johnson spoke of doing so in the House of Commons. That date is of note for two reasons. Firstly, because it was less than two weeks into the actual operation of the NIP, showing how early it was being threatened (and, of course, Johnson and others had denied from the outset that the NIP meant there would be an Irish Sea border). And secondly because it predates by two weeks the EU’s own short-lived and abandoned threat to invoke Article 16 over vaccine supplies, of which Brexiters and the government now make so much.

As I wrote at the time, that was a major blunder by the EU, with no justification. Even so, and apart from the fact it never happened, what it would have meant has been heavily misrepresented. It would not have meant creating an Ireland-Northern Ireland border, as some Brexiters now claim, but only that vaccines destined for Northern Ireland would never have left the factory in Belgium. Moreover, it would have been a specific measure to deal with a particular and unforeseen emergency. In this, even as a possibility, it was entirely different to the way that the Brexiters, and the government, are now talking about how the UK might try to use Article 16.

What that talk seems to suggest is that Article 16 would allow the UK unilaterally to suspend the entirety of the NIP or even unilaterally to disapply the NIP. As Professors Katy Hayward and Dave Phinnemore of Queen’s University Belfast explain, neither of these is the case. The UK would need to identify ‘serious’ problems which were ‘unexpected’ and ‘likely to persist’, and the proposed solutions, for consideration and discussion by the Joint Committee. Diversion of trade is one possible problem which might be identified – and Frost’s recent statements seem to imply it is the one upon which the UK might base an Article 16 invocation - but it can’t just be that which was to be expected because it is inherent in the agreement. It certainly isn’t the case, as, again, Iain Duncan Smith recently claimed (£), that diversion is “forbidden” by the NIP. And most certainly Article 16 isn’t a way of just saying ‘we don’t like this agreement’: its terms would continue to exist, and many of them would continue to operate.

So, rather as with invoking Article 50, it would be the beginning of a process (though not one leading to ‘exiting’ the NIP). Thus whenever invoking Article 16 is proposed, the crucial question that should be asked is: and then what? The answer, inescapably, is further negotiation with the EU, but if that has failed to give the UK the outcome it wants without using Article 16 then it is no more likely (probably less likely) having done so. So what then? Rip up the NIP entirely, with all that will mean for possible trade sanctions from the EU, and, at the very least, diplomatic rows with the US? And, still, what then?

Article 16 can’t solve the deeper problem

For the deeper problem in all this is the same one that has existed since, at least, the UK government decided in January 2017 that Brexit meant hard Brexit. If the UK is to be outside the regulatory regime of the EU single market and the tariff regime of the customs union then the UK itself needs a border just as the EU does. So where’s the border? That question has no easier answer now than it had in all the years since 2017 during which endless models were proposed. The NIP is the least-worst answer that anyone could come up with which both sides would agree to.

The recent spate of self-serving tweets from Dominic Cummings on this subject is again instructive. Although he affects disdain for the ERG, his account is precisely that which most of them have been peddling for years, namely that the Irish border issue was a minor or even non-existent one, and only achieved prominence because of the weakness and incompetence of May’s government and its acceptance of what Cummings calls the “babbling” about the Good Friday Agreement. Had what he calls “we” (apparently meaning the Vote Leave team) been in charge, the UK would just have refused to erect borders and if the EU did then so be it: the integrity of the single market was the EU’s problem, not the UK’s (he still doesn’t seem to realise that the UK needed a border as well). By the time Johnson and Cummings came to power, it was too late and what they both childishly call the ‘Surrender Act’ (meaning the Benn Act) prevented resurrecting a hardball approach, hence the NIP with its associated Irish Sea border. This, of course, rests on the preposterous idea that a no-deal Brexit, which would have damaged the UK far more than the EU, constituted negotiating leverage had the Benn Act not prevented it.

As I say, none of this is new and I’ve catalogued it as the boilerplate position of the Brexit Ultras endlessly on this blog, as well as explaining why it was unrealistic. Apart from anything else it ignores the fact that David Davis thought pretty much exactly the same things, but found that they were unworkable, including the fantasy of an Article 50 pre-negotiation, the denial of the reality of the Irish border issue, and the delusion that Ireland was only a minor player. In short, most of Cummings’s ‘hypotheticals’ are already discredited. More generally, what developed into May’s deal wasn’t a result of the Ultras’ approach not having been tried, but of it having been tried and failed. So it is only of passing interest, and no surprise, that Cummings himself has confirmed that he shares their analysis of the Brexit process and clings – in a way reminiscent of those who used to defend the USSR as not being ‘real’ Communism – to the idea that ‘it just wasn’t tried properly’.

Frost’s flawed logic

Cummings is irrelevant now, hence he has the time to re-litigate the events of the last few years in his barrage of tweets and blogs. But what remains highly relevant is that his analysis is shared by David Frost who, of course, was one of the Cummings’ group when the NIP was negotiated. Frost may not have brewed the Kool-Aid (his skills, to the extent they are discernible, appear to be emulative rather than innovative), but he certainly drank deeply from the cup. So Cummings’s statements underscore the fact that Frost, like all the Brexit Ultras, doesn’t accept the need for the NIP or the validity of the process that led to it. Moreover, it underscores his commitment to the fanciful idea that playing ‘hardball’ pays dividends – the belief, for example, that the illegal clauses in the Internal Markets Bill paved the way to a trade deal being struck (in fact, they nearly scuppered it). The corollary of that belief is a refusal to accept that the UK losing the trust of the EU – and more widely - matters, or is even a relevant concept.

The reason this is so crucial is that it confirms something which, as I’ve argued before, I think many pundits misunderstand about Frost’s approach to the NIP. It is not ‘playing to the domestic gallery’ and it is not intended to be, though of course may end up being, a prelude to a climbdown with the EU. Like every bull market sucker, he genuinely believes that ‘this time’ it will be different. If I am right, then Frost is not making the current hard pitch as a route to a subsequent compromise giving him much but not all of what he demands, but believes he can have those demands met pretty much in full.

This seems to be confirmed this week by the government’s immediate rejection of the EU’s proposals for some flexibilities in the application of the NIP as inadequate. It also explains why Frost isn’t doing anything to build trust with the EU in the way suggested in a wise analysis of the situation by Maddy Thimont Jack of the Institute for Government this week. For, wise as it is, trust plays no part on the Frost-Cummings-Game Theory 101 approach to negotiations. It does, however, matter in the real world, and lack of trust in both the UK in general and Johnson in particular is the central stumbling block to Frost’s recent proposals being accepted when viewed from an EU perspective.

Moreover, the antagonistic atmosphere Frost has created arguably partly explains the European Commission’s refusal to recommend that the UK be allowed to rejoin the Lugano Convention (as readers of this blog will be aware). It certainly won’t have helped. Nor is it likely to help in the re-emerging disagreements over Gibraltar. More generally, Frost either doesn’t understand or doesn’t care that it is in the nature of Brexit that the UK will, permanently, be in negotiations with the EU about something or other. Eviscerating goodwill in such circumstances is extremely foolish.

So what now?

Coming back to the NIP, in her characteristically excellent assessment of the present situation, Professor Katy Hayward suggests that Frost’s strategy “simply deepens the hole that the UK has dug for itself”. She argues that the EU has three possible responses. One would be simply to accept all or most of the UK’s demands, but she is surely right to think this highly unlikely. The second would be to take some form of retaliatory action (introduction of some tariffs, exclusion of UK from some programmes). The third is to continue to try to negotiate within the framework of the NIP, as so far continues to be the case.

That might also go alongside a more minimal acceptance of Frost’s demands to the extent of further extensions of the various grace periods. This seemed likely to happen anyway, and even more so now that the EU have announced that it will, as Frost requested, pause the legal action over those grace periods the UK unilaterally extended last March. As I flagged in my previous post, last week it was being reported that the action would proceed to the next stage by the end of this month.

The logic of Frost’s position (assuming, again, that I have read it correctly) would be to respond aggressively to any retaliations, and to bank concessions on the grace periods, regard them as proof that his ‘tough’ approach works, say they don’t go far enough, and invoke Article 16. As noted above, the latter wouldn’t solve anything but it would escalate the political crisis – which is the only direction that the Frost logic points to. In that view of the world, as soon as you back down, or even compromise, you’ve lost. That is what – as Cummings’ statements show – the Ultras think happened repeatedly post-2016 and they won’t do it again. But there is ‘a but’.

Which way will ‘shopping trolley’ Johnson veer?

The analysis that all would have been fine if only the politics of the 2016-2019 period hadn’t prevented the Brexit Ultras’ strategy working is inadequate for many reasons, including its failure to understand basic realities about the EU and the single market. But it also contains its own contradiction in imagining that the Brexit process could ever proceed separately from ‘politics’ or, as Cummings puts it, ‘SW1’ (meaning, I suppose, the entirety of the politico-governmental system). So if Frost’s logic escalates the present tensions with the EU into a huge crisis, politics may well intervene decisively in the form of Johnson.

I’m sure that, in his way, Johnson buys in to the simplism that runs through the Cummings-Frost thinking, just as he once believed that both exit and trade deals could be done as part of the Article 50 process, and that GATT Article XXIV was a get out of jail free card. However, it’s hardly a startling insight that Johnson believes deeply in very little, but cares greatly about his own position and advantage and that on policy, as Cummings puts it, he veers about like a wonky shopping trolley.

So the ‘but’ for Frost’s approach is whether, when it comes to it, he will get Johnson’s support or whether he will join the long list of those Johnson has betrayed. In answering this question, clearly any issues of principle or loyalty can be discounted. Far more shamefully, it seems unlikely that any concern for peace and security in Northern Ireland will figure highly in Johnson’s priorities. On the other hand, if there were intensified pressure from the Biden administration that could matter.

What might be most relevant, though, is the sharp recent decline in the Conservative’s opinion poll ratings and Johnson’s own approval scores.  If this is still continuing come an autumn crisis the calculation may be whether a major confrontation with the EU will be popular with the electorate or not. It would certainly appeal to his voter base, and to many of his MPs. It might bring back some of his public support. But it might alienate a larger number of voters, not least since Johnson was elected on the promise that he would ‘get Brexit done’ and yet here he is, still negotiating the terms of the deal formerly known as oven-ready. In particular, it might alienate the type of Tory voters who deserted Johnson in the recent Chesham and Amersham by-election, and alarm his already “jittery” backbenchers (£). If also facing the kind of Labour post-Brexit strategy I discussed in last week’s post, which seems increasingly in prospect (£), Johnson might well conclude that, as regards the NIP, discretion is the better part of valour.

How such calculations play out obviously remains to be seen, but since so much of Brexit has been more about domestic politics than Britain’s relationship with the EU it wouldn’t be altogether surprising if it were to be so again. So it’s not impossible that Frost may soon be joining Cummings in having many spare hours in which to tweet about how Brexit would have been a huge success if only he had been allowed to do it properly.

Friday 23 July 2021

The Frost-Johnson approach has already failed

For over a year now the Johnson government’s response to Covid and its handling of Brexit have not just occurred in parallel but have exhibited numerous parallels. This week’s ‘freedom day’ fiasco is the latest example, with its blind insistence on meeting an arbitrary pre-set date having echoes of, amongst other things, the mulish obstinacy about not extending the transition period. Similarly, Brexiter MP Graham Brady writing about how willingness to wear masks shows “how far a proud nation has allowed itself to fall” is a reminder that windy rhetoric and bogus patriotism are amongst the common threads linking lockdown scepticism and Brexity outrage.

Brady, for those who have forgotten, gave his name to an amendment which was one of the most surreal moments of the Brexit saga, and of course the constant pressure from such doltish backbenchers is another common factor in both Brexit and Covid policies. Not that Boris Johnson needs to be pressured into incompetence; one might say that it is his factory setting. In relation to both Brexit and Covid, he seems to have simply decided it is all too difficult and boring, and can’t even be bothered to engage with either of them in any meaningful way. So Covid policy has been sub-contracted to individuals and organizations to cope with as best they can, whilst Brexit has been sub-contracted to the lamentably over-promoted David Frost.

It is now two years since Johnson became Prime Minister, and they have been remarkable for all the wrong reasons. “Seldom has a rich, sophisticated Western nation fallen so far, so fast” as during his tenure, as Martin Fletcher put it this week. Annette Dittert’s critique, now published in English is even more excoriating in its forensic analysis of “the politics of lies” he has presided over. Whilst it’s true this has had little impact on his support in the opinion polls, it continues to have a huge impact on events since reality is a harsher judge than the electorate, and the price it extracts for endless lying is merciless.

With Covid, that price can be measured in lives lost and blighted. But it is equally clear in relation to Brexit and, in particular, the escalating disputes over the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP). These are rooted in years of sickening dishonesty, going back to Johnson’s pre-referendum claim that Brexit had no implications for the Irish border, through all the years of denial about what the implications were (of which the Brady amendment was just one episode), leading to the lies told about what had actually been agreed in the NIP.

Frost’s incoherent dogma: a brief review

It’s important to keep remembering this history in the face of the now endemic gaslighting about what has led to the current situation. For months now the government has been developing a narrative about the NIP which has culminated in the supposedly new proposals put forward in parliament by Frost and Brandon Lewis this week.

That narrative has two core propositions. These, perhaps unsurprisingly, manage to be risible within their own terms whilst also being inconsistent with each other. One is that the government only agreed the NIP because of the circumstances of the ‘remainer parliament’. The other is that the realities of what the NIP means have only emerged during the attempt to implement it.

The first is risible because at the time the NIP was proclaimed as a great triumph, and part of Johnson’s ‘oven-ready deal’. The second is risible because the NIP contained significant detail of what implementation meant and its implications were largely obvious at the time. And the two are inconsistent because the first implies that the problems were always known whilst the second denies they were ever envisaged.

But the shape-shifting sophistry of Brexit isn’t concerned with consistency or logic. Nor is it seemingly much concerned with pride, since the first claim entails that Johnson and Frost were dishonest, whilst the second requires that they were incompetent. In any case, the reason for both claims is the same: to insist that the EU should allow the UK to renege on what was agreed. For what Frost made crystal clear this week is that the UK wants to rewrite almost the entirety of the NIP.

Within this narrative, a recurrent sub-theme is the childish complaint (given that it relates to a legal agreement) that the EU is adopting a “purist” approach, supposedly evidenced by the fact that such a high proportion – perhaps 20% - of all EU border checks are occurring on the GB>NI border. But there are several reasons for that, principally, as outlined by RTE’s Tony Connelly on his latest blog, that nowhere else do you have a situation where organizational supply chains (especially those of supermarkets) so extensively straddle the borders of the single market. To that I would add the fact that, because this is also a border inside the UK single market, there is a far higher percentage of mixed goods consignments (‘groupage’) than would normally occur on the EU single market border. So it’s true that this is an unprecedented situation, but it is one created by Brexit and agreed by the government.

None of this is an unexpected result of the NIP. It was obvious it would be a consequence of an Irish Sea border, just as it was obvious there would be considerable diversion of goods trade from GB>NI to Ireland>NI to avoid these barriers (the opposite may well occur with respect to services trade). This is important to note because Frost is shaping up to make ‘unexpected diversion of trade’ central to any attempt to invoke Article 16 (temporary suspension) of the NIP.

Similarly, it is nonsense to pretend that the unhappiness of unionists with the Irish Sea border is some surprising new consideration. The objections of the DUP were known in 2019 and deliberately, even brutally, over-ridden. It’s even more indefensible to now argue that the NIP violates the principle of consent in the Good Friday Agreement. Apart from the fact that if it were true the time to realise it was before signing, the entirety of Brexit is being done without the consent of Northern Ireland, where it did not have majority support.

Not only are all these claims bogus, they are also irrelevant. Even if it were true that the government agreed the NIP unwillingly, because of the nature of the 2017-19 parliament, it remains the case that it signed up to it as part of an international treaty. Would Brexiters accept it if the EU were now to say that it had agreed only because of its internal politics and wanted to be let off its commitments now? Equally, even if it were true that the consequences are unexpected, the principle of pacta sunt servanda means that the UK (like the EU) is bound by the agreements it makes.

But, of course, neither of these things is true. The NIP happened because Johnson wanted to proclaim he had ‘done the deal’ and ‘got rid of the hated backstop’ so that Britain could have no further delays to reaching, ahem, ‘freedom day’ from the EU. On this basis he won the 2019 election and rammed the legislation through parliament, with almost no discussion, prior to signing the deal. Yet within literally weeks of doing so he and Frost were discovered to be working on plans to circumvent the provisions of the NIP (£), long before any implementation had even occurred and therefore before any ‘unexpected’ consequences could have arisen.

Once more around the Mobius Strip

None of this would be guessed from this week’s government proposals. Without even a hint of contrition for his prior decisions – he, after all, negotiated the NIP - Frost now shamelessly recycles various versions of ideas that were repeatedly discussed and rejected prior to the 2019 agreement. These include a revival of the ‘honesty box’ idea in place of customs checks, a Sanitary and Phyto-sanitary (SPS) ‘dual regulatory’ system, and the removal of the ECJ’s role in governance. These suggestions are not explained in any great detail, but in many ways they quite closely resemble the proposals made in October 2019, and rejected by the EU, before Johnson’s ‘walk in the park’ with Leo Varadkar.

In other words, as per my recent blog post, the government continues to go around the same Mobius Strip of trying to square contradictory demands. It would be embarrassing were Frost capable of embarrassment, so he leaves that to the rest of us. The irreducible core, explicitly stated in the new document (paragraph 4) is that the government, like all the Brexiter ideologues (£), does not in fact accept the need for the NIP at all. It comes close to an open admission of what is abundantly obvious: Johnson signed up to the NIP in bad faith.

This makes the kind of high-trust solutions envisaged by Frost even less realistic than when they were first proposed. For the UK has now squandered all trust, not least by attempting to renege on the NIP which was itself a trust-based approach in that the EU accepted that a third country (i.e. the UK) would manage the single market border.

That said, there are two aspects of the UK’s approach which do show some kind of realism. One is that, despite claiming (highly dubiously) that the grounds for triggering Article 16 already exist the government says it will not, at least for now, do so. The other is that although the proposal amounts to a wholesale re-write of the NIP Frost is careful to avoid talking of scrapping it. Both of these presumably reflect a realisation of the perils of provoking significant reaction from the EU, whether legal or economic. In addition, especially as regards the latter, as was pointedly made clear a few hours before Frost’s statement, the Biden administration expects the UK and the EU to stay within “existing mechanisms” in their discussions, meaning the NIP. The UK is at least adhering to the letter of that.

Even so, what Frost did this week marks a major escalation, and an unnecessary one. For we know there is a way out of many of the problems, in the form of SPS regulatory alignment, which Frost refuses even to countenance as it means ‘compromising sovereignty’. Without going all over the arguments about that idea of sovereignty, and simply taking it at face value, the central point, I think, is this: Brexit was the UK’s policy, and the ‘hard’ form it took was chosen by the UK government.

So if ‘compromise’ is what is needed because of the politics of Northern Ireland then it is the UK which should compromise. To my mind, it really is as simple as that although, again to my mind, far from compromising the UK’s interests it would be very much to our advantage – not just for Northern Ireland but for GB-EU trade (a rarely mentioned point is that all the disruptive barriers to GB-NI trade which Brexiters deem intolerable also apply to GB>EU trade which the Brexiters like to claim has barely been affected). The obstacle to a solution is the ‘purism’ of Frost’s Brexiter dogmatism.

An open goal for Labour

This is actually becoming an increasingly open goal for Labour, if they have the courage and insight to make use of it. Recent comments from Keir Starmer, Rachel Reeves, Emily Thornberry, and this week even, to an extent, Lisa Nandy, have suggested this might be in prospect. And Louise Haigh, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary, made a robust response to this week’s NIP proposals. But there needs to be a bolder and more co-ordinated post-Brexit policy offering, which would be both differentiated from government policy and notably better for British jobs, consumers and businesses. Yes, there are risks for Labour, but there will always be risks in defining policy as, for that matter, there are risks in not defining policy. Indeed at the moment it is the latter which is Starmer’s biggest problem: voters don’t know what his Labour Party stands for.

This post-Brexit policy could be badged ‘a better deal for Britain’ in deference to the (supposed) sensibilities of ‘red wall’ voters, and would certainly be a more viable one than the recent ‘Buy British’ plan. It would start from addressing the NIP, on both economic and security grounds, and widen out to include a plan to negotiate a mobility chapter of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) to benefit Britain’s services and cultural industries, as well as proposals to deepen the security aspects of the TCA. After all, the TCA will be up for review in 2026 anyway, so will be a key issue following the next election.

Of course everyone knows that Johnson would splutter about Labour not having accepted Brexit. But that currency has a diminishing value not least, ironically, because of Johnson’s own insistence that he ‘got Brexit done’. Beyond that, very few voters know or care about the intricacies of SPS regulations – for example, the differences between ‘equivalence’ and ‘alignment’ are certainly not doorstep issues. On the other hand, shortage of lorry drivers, which is to a considerable extent linked to Brexit, and resultant empty shelves in shops (£), is, literally, a bread-and-butter issue. On mobility, the heat that immigration had as an issue in 2016 has largely dissipated (only 2% of voters think it is the most important issue facing the UK today), and greater international security cooperation is probably popular and certainly relatively uncontroversial.

Moreover, the pandemic, with all the challenges it has brought and is bringing, means the terrain of politics has shifted. Why add to all the other woes by insisting on ‘sovereignty’ at all costs? A very potent line for Starmer would be that we need to stop harking back to all the old Brexit debates which, after all, are exactly what Frost is resurrecting not just in relation to sovereignty but in trying to re-write the NIP.

But if Johnson really does want to keep revisiting the ‘will of the people’ then he will be on very tricky ground. The very hard-line approach he and Frost are taking is a long way from the Brexit that was promised in 2016 and it is absurd to think that it commands anything like the level of support that Brexit itself still has. Indeed according to the most recent opinion polls, of those who support staying outside the EU, about a third favour a closer relationship than at present, and it seems a fair assumption that all or most of those who support rejoining the EU would agree with that. As with the wider post-Brexit culture wars, discussed in last week’s post, it’s important not to fall for the populists’ rhetoric that they speak for ‘the people’.

The possibility of pragmatism

So a pragmatic ‘better deal for Britain’ policy would be acceptable and perhaps welcome to many who voted leave, whilst being a long overdue acknowledgment of the concerns of those who voted remain, a group which, of course, includes the majority of habitual Labour voters. But it’s not just that such a policy would be good tactics for Labour: it would also be self-evidently good for the country, and in ways that go even deeper than Brexit itself.

It's perfectly sensible, for all sorts of reasons, that it is not Labour policy to rejoin the EU, and instead to say that Brexit is a reality. But the question is what kind of reality. A ‘better deal for Britain’ policy could speak to the overwhelming public sense that Brexit has not gone very well (only 5% think it has),  whether people think that was inherent to it or was simply down to the way it was done. Central to moving forward is to break the cycle of endless lies which, as this week’s events show, still blights the government’s approach to Brexit. The wider import of that is the way that Johnson’s entire approach to government is based on a pathological, incontinent dishonesty across every policy area. Until that gets definitively called out – even if, as Labour MP Dawn Butler found this week, the arcane rules of Parliament forbid it being done there - as the basic, defining problem of his government nothing will improve, whether in relation to Covid, Brexit or anything else.

As for the immediate term, it is clear that Frost, with his adolescent idea of what ‘tough negotiating’ consists of, is hell-bent on provoking a crisis in UK-EU relations, and this week’s document confirms that. Things will probably go quiet for the next few weeks, as the holiday season kicks in and whilst the grace periods remain in force. It is possible that the EU will agree a further extension of those periods, as requested by Frost, to forestall an immediate crisis when they are due to lapse at the end of September. However, if reports are correct, the EU is not going to accede to his request to “freeze” the legal action underway against the UK for its unilateral breaches of the NIP. Instead, the next stage of the action will be undertaken by the end of this month. More generally, as Maros Sefcovic’s initial reaction implies, it is inconceivable that the EU will accept the bulk of Frost’s latest proposals, as the government must surely know, and certainly won’t re-negotiate the protocol.

So matters will come to a head in the autumn. That will be the moment for Labour to stake out a different approach – if it is ever going to – and, with that, to begin to lay to rest some of the ghosts of its own Brexit divisions. Much more importantly it could be the beginning of a much-needed re-set of UK-EU relations which has many aspects other than the NIP – the emerging row over Gibraltar being an important example - all of which are being poisoned by the Frost-Johnson approach to the NIP. For, if nothing else, it is clear that their approach leads nowhere. It’s not that it is going to fail. It’s that its very existence, two years after they negotiated the NIP, is evidence that it has already failed.


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

Friday 16 July 2021

Another country?

The big story of the week is football. Given the volume of comment there has been, it’s difficult to say anything which is interesting or original but, as mentioned in my previous post, it’s hard not to connect it with Brexit so I’ll try to say something about it even though I don’t know much about football (I support Crystal Palace, boom-boom).

For some, of course, the connection is of a negative sort in that the whole tournament could be seen as welcome for being nothing to do with Brexit or politics. Or, which may be a different version of the same thing, as showing how the divisions of Brexit could be healed. A few suggested that England’s success represented a triumph of Brexit. Others thought that Gareth Southgate, in particular, and his team in general, articulated and embodied a new progressive patriotism that was at odds with Brexit. Some in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland may have wondered what a Number 10 decked out with St George’s flags had to do with them.

Then came the post-tournament fall-out over taking the knee, booing taking the knee (and the condemning or condoning of that), the thuggery of some supporters, the racist attacks on England’s black footballers, and their and others’ responses to it. Unavoidably, this is about politics. Unavoidably, too, it is an aspect of the culture wars that have been simmering over Brexit itself as well as over racism, the legacy of the slave trade and colonialism, ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ politics, and, at the most generic level, over the (different) questions of what it now means to be English and of what it now means to be British.

A nation not at ease with itself

There can never be a single answer to such questions. The idea of a ‘united’ country is necessarily a somewhat absurd one, all the more so when, as with the UK, it is made up of more than one country. National cultures are just too complex and heterogenous to be capturable in any one way, and attempts to make them so are likely to be unpleasantly totalitarian and, even then, not to be fully realized. For that matter, the received image that World War Two Britain saw ‘everyone pulling together for the common good’ is somewhat misleading, as can be seen from the many published Mass Observation diaries, as well as the work of historians like Angus Calder.

Even so, there has been a palpable sense during the Brexit years of Britain as a country more than usually riven, and more than usually divided over both its understanding of its own past and its present-day meaning, let alone its future direction. It has become a cliché that whereas the 2012 London Olympics seemed to present a country that had some comfort with itself, Brexit slammed into that like a wrecking ball. So whilst the notion of a ‘nation at ease with itself’ is a rather illusory one, it has been tangible since Brexit that Britain is a nation that isn’t at ease with itself.

Some of that is to do with race and ethnicity. Manifestly Britain isn’t the only country where that is so, so it would be lazy to ascribe everything to Brexit. It is also lazy to explain Brexit solely, or even necessarily mainly, in terms of anti-immigration sentiment - but it would be entirely dishonest to deny it having been a significant driver. For all that some Brexiters may have disowned it, they were content to profit from, for example, the UKIP “Breaking Point” poster.

Certainly the promise to end freedom of movement of people was a major factor in the vote to leave, and also a decisive one in the subsequent decision that that meant leaving the single market.  And the post-Brexit culture war has been very much conducted on the terrain of ‘cracking down’ on asylum seekers and of controlling immigration (though both of these pre-date Brexit) as well as things like the battles over statues with associations with slavery and colonialism.

But that culture war has other fronts as well. Examples include ongoing skirmishes over ‘cancel culture’ and freedom of speech. In particular, there are remarkably strong connections and overlaps between Brexit and anti-vaccine, anti-lockdown and anti-mask positions. That may be less of a cleavage between leave and remain voters, but is fairly clear at the level of the high-profile Brexiter leaders in politics and the media – Farage being the most obvious example, and the links between the ERG and the ‘Covid Recovery Group’ of Tory MPs being another.

Johnson’s vulnerability

Within all this, Boris Johnson has clearly been an important figure but in a rather peculiar way. Despite fronting the Vote Leave campaign, his commitment to Brexit was never very deep or genuine and, as is well-known, he nearly backed remain. Covid forced him into backing restrictions which, undoubtedly, he would have opposed had he not been Prime Minister, and his antipathy to them explains why he was always late to adopt them and usually gives the impression that he doesn’t fully support them.

Crucially, it is clearly the case that fomenting the culture war has been part of a deliberate strategy developed by senior government advisers (£) who see it as central to holding together Johnson’s electoral coalition. It is this strategy which has now caught him out – especially in refusing to condemn the booing of knee-taking and then, with wearying inevitability, lying about it – in the same way as it has caught out Priti Patel.

It remains to be seen how this now plays out, but Johnson’s particular vulnerability is the naked opportunism of his desire for popularity, which makes charges of hypocrisy easy and, therefore, public conviction on those charges an ever-present possibility, especially now that it brings him into conflict with the likeable, gifted, articulate and extremely popular English football stars. If nothing else, it exposes the difference between ‘popular’ and ‘populist’, something which some Tories are now realizing and which the Labour Party has begun to explore.

2016: the national conversation we didn’t know we were having

Johnson’s fate isn’t, however, the main issue in the football rows. What is more important, I think, is that they show an appetite for a ‘national conversation’ (whatever that might actually mean) about ‘what kind of country’ – or, rather, countries - we are which challenges the apparent victory of the Brexiter narrative of ‘the people’. The latter didn’t happen as the result of such a national conversation but emerged, almost accidentally, as the result of a sort of smash and grab raid because, at the time of the referendum, few people quite understood what was going on (I certainly didn’t).

That was perhaps because the general assumption, on all sides, was that remain would win. So we didn’t really know that we weren’t just deciding whether or not to leave the EU but were engaged in something which was about to shape the entirety of what ‘we’ – the United Kingdom, England – meant, both for ourselves and for how we are seen abroad. (A recent example of the latter is German journalist Annette Dittert’s evisceration of Johnson’s regime.)

So, in a way which wouldn’t have been the case had remain won, literally overnight a radical alteration occurred in the terrain and texture of politics. Very soon it became clear that the Brexit process wasn’t going to be just one of ‘technical’ adjustments but would be a battle for Britain’s ‘political soul’. With that, it emerged, as I wrote a few weeks ago, that Brexit had, in effect, ‘cancelled’ half the population as being of no account and an idea that they are unpatriotic or, even, anti-patriotic. Perhaps now they are finding a voice again. At all events, as I suggested in that post, it’s not sustainable for a country to simply dismiss half its population, and the younger, more educated half at that, as an irrelevance.

Redefining patriotism

That’s not to say that the football rows line up leavers and remainers for, as it were, a cultural penalty shoot-out (for one thing, it won’t have such a decisive outcome). The lines are much less clearly drawn than that. But they do involve an adjacent set of distinctions between mono- and multi-culturalism, exclusivity and inclusivity, insularity and openness, and between simplistic and complex understandings of history, culture and nationhood. Football is a potent terrain for that because these rows are about the national team (of England), and so deny the fault-line as being between patriots and non-patriots, or between those who ‘love the country’ versus ‘those who would talk it down’. Rather, and quite starkly, the fault-line becomes between two competing versions of what the country is, of whose country it is, and of what patriotism means.

During the referendum (and, in fact, for years before) a common expression, or complaint, amongst pro-Brexit people was ‘I just want my country back’. That was often code for hostility to immigration, but it also referenced a wider set of actual or perceived lost stabilities. With Brexit, though it seems hardly to have diminished the complaint (since it is an essentially unsatisfiable desire), they have got their country back. But it was an expression which was predicated on other people losing their country as, with Brexit, many felt they did, and those people are still, for the most part, here. There was, literally, no possibility of reversing time so as to ‘get back’ something which, even if it had ever existed, no longer did so, and couldn’t be voted into being. In fact, to the extent it was a promise of Brexit, it was another of the false promises of Brexit.

Challenging inverted snobbery

As well as breaking through the false division of the patriotic and the unpatriotic, the football rows are significant in breaking the associated attempt of populist inverted snobbery to draw an essential divide between ‘ordinary’ working-class people and the supposedly sneering, university-educated middle-class.

That is an inadequate way of understanding the Brexit vote, as for example research on ‘comfortable leavers’ shows. It is also, ironically, a hugely patronizing and stereotypical view of class and of region, in which the ‘people up north’ are imagined as pigeon-fancying, leave-voting, terrace house dwellers who have never been to university and enjoy nothing more than a pint of wallop, whilst liberal metropolitan remain-voting southerners sit around sipping Sancerre and discussing Derrida with the au pair in their Tuscan holiday homes.

Needless to say, many of the most earnest of these heroic culture warriors are, in fact, well-heeled, London-based graduates but ‘will have you know’ that their grandfather on their mother’s side was a coal miner which, by some mysterious process of genetic and historical osmosis, makes them the voice of the people. It sometimes seems as if their politics is a decades-long reaction to the excitement of hearing Pulp’s Common People played at a JCR disco in 1995.

In any case, it manifestly falls apart when it involves positioning footballers like Marcus Rashford - who actively and effectively campaigned for free school meals drawing on his own childhood experiences of poverty in Manchester, and is an inspirational role model to people of all kinds of backgrounds and ages - as out of touch or engaged in ‘gesture politics’.

The role of masculinity?

There’s perhaps also something to be said about masculinity in all this, although it is hard to pin down. The Brexit vote was evenly split in terms of gender, but there’s an undercurrent of macho bravado about ‘going it alone’ and in the associated culture war attack on ‘remoaners’, ‘snowflakes’ and ‘cry babies’, as well as a definite sense amongst some lockdown sceptics of ‘masks being for wimps’.

Even harder to pin down, but discernible I think, is an implicit idea of the ‘metropolitan liberal elite’ of whatever gender as being effete, and the ‘authentic working class’ of whatever gender as being rugged and earthy. Again, it’s hard to position professional footballers as effete wimps, so the polarizing dyads of the culture war work less effectively here as well.

Within this there is an interesting and subtle twist. Because in some ways these footballers are re-writing traditional machismo, including that associated with football, in the way they emphasise cooperation and solidarity. Apart from the conduct of the team during the tournament, that was evident in the support Rashford gave to another fine British sporting talent, the tennis player Emma Raducanu.

Radacunu, whose Canadian-Chinese-Romanian background itself bespeaks of a multi-cultural Britain, whilst making her a target for social media mutterings that she’s not ‘really’ British, had had to withdraw from Wimbledon suffering what appeared to be an anxiety attack. She should take advice on how to “toughen up”, opined Piers Morgan; “you should be proud of yourself”, said Rashford.

A new conversation?

So in just the same way as the referendum vote became, even if it was unexpected and unplanned that it should be so, an occasion for redefining national identity, there is a kind of pent-up desire for that process, having been started, to continue. For a while, under the bludgeon of ‘the will of the people’ it couldn’t quite happen, but it has kept trying to attach itself to suitable occasions – the ‘Harry and Meghan’ rows are perhaps an example – and football is the latest and most potent of them.

How long this episode lasts, and how significant it is, remains to be seen. But in some form or another I think the process is certain to continue as regards both England and Britain. That is because not only is the notion of a ‘unified culture’ a myth, but so too is that of a static one. Culture, in its anthropological meanings, isn’t a branch of the heritage industry. It is also – as studies of organizational culture show, but the same is perhaps even more true of national culture – remarkably resistant to ‘top-down’ management of the sort being attempted by the present government through, for example, its efforts to exert control universities, heritage organizations, and the BBC.

Writing on his blog this week, David Allen Green points out that “those who start culture wars can also lose them”, whilst Peter Jukes and Hardeep Matharu in Byline Times suggest that the football rows may represent a point when the tide turns in Johnson et al.’s culture war. It certainly seems to have impaled GBNews on the inherent contradiction between positioning itself as ‘anti-woke’ yet proclaiming to stand for free speech. But I’m not sure that culture wars ever have a decisive outcome, and it’s worth noting that the usual self-styled ‘contrarians’ have been quick to fight back this week.

That said, to the extent that the current one has its proximate roots in the Brexit vote, it’s significant that, along with and closely linked to educational level, the best predictor of how people voted in 2016 was age. In that sense the electoral success of Johnson’s approach may be rather time-limited - something Conservative strategists are well aware of (£). Equally, that means there are opportunities, especially for the Labour Party, to catch the tide if not of history then of its close cousin, demography.

But, to reiterate, this is not just or mainly about political parties, although they affect and are affected by it. It is a wider matter, not created but exacerbated by Brexit, of identity and belonging. Football is only incidental to that, but primarily because it is popular it offers an arena – after years of talk of ‘the will of the people’ and of ‘enemies of the people’ – to ask what manner of people the English and, if indirectly, the British are.

Friday 9 July 2021

Britain - the neighbour from hell

As predicted in recent posts, including last week’s, there is no sign that the government’s confrontational approach to the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP) is going to change. Neither the Biden intervention nor the EU’s agreement to extend the chilled meats grace period, plus other recent flexibilities, is going to make any difference. What may just be beginning to change is the willingness of Labour to challenge it, with Keir Starmer making some unusually critical comments about Johnson's and Frost’s failings over Brexit.

The Frost-Lewis article

The continuing antagonism of this approach was sharply intensified by an article co-authored by David Frost and Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary, in the Irish Times last weekend, which has had reverberations throughout the week. It articulates what has emerged as the standard Brexiter case against the NIP, including the familiar dishonesty about the significance of the EU’s aborted proposal to invoke Article 16, but a few features are worth flagging up. In particular, it is important in its formulation of the central problem as being “the inflexible requirement to treat the movement of goods into Northern Ireland as if they were crossing an external EU frontier” (my emphasis added). This is noteworthy because it effectively rejects the core meaning of the NIP, and the reason why it exists. For it is not a matter of ‘as if’: the NIP is, precisely, an agreement about where the external EU frontier will be.

The refusal – repeated by Frost at an event this week - to accept this basic fact actually gives the lie to the recurrent motif in the article that the issue is that UK did not “expect” the border to be enforced as it is required to be, or had “assumed” that it would not be. Even taken in its own terms, this suggests rank incompetence on the part of Frost and the government. But that is actually far too generous, because they must have known at the time and were certainly advised of it by civil servants. Frost and Lewis write as if the NIP was just a general document, with all the details left to be filled in later, but whilst it’s true that there is scope for it to evolve over time, it also contains detailed provisions in the annexes for how it will work.

So whilst Frost and Lewis claim that EU insistence on implementing these provisions is to take a “theological approach”, as if to imply that all they seek is a little flexibility, their rejection of the central tenet of the NIP shows that this is not the case at all. Nor is their implication that their objections have only arisen as a result of trying to implement the NIP true. In fact Lewis, like Johnson and other ministers, denied from the outset that a sea border had been agreed at all. Moreover, as Professor Ronan McCrea points out, what Frost is proposing about the sea border neglects the wider context of compromises and trade-offs of which it is only one element. Meanwhile, lurking behind Frost, Lewis and Johnson is the DUP’s new leader, Jeffrey Donaldson, pushing for sea border controls to be removed “within weeks” (£).*

Irish reactions to Frost-Lewis

The placing of this article in the Irish media is both significant and deliberate. It signals that the UK stance is not just for domestic consumption, but is one the government is intent on pursuing. That this is so is underlined by the fact the that the UK Ambassador to Ireland approached RTE shortly before the article was published, knowing its content, and proposing that this meant it would be a “good time” to give an interview. This duly went ahead on Saturday and consisted of an uncompromising defence of the article.

So Frost-Lewis had not committed some accidental diplomatic gaffe: there appears to be a concerted British strategy in play which can’t be dismissed as playing to the Brexiter gallery (since neither the Irish Times nor RTE is the right theatre for this). It may be part of an attempt to garner support in Ireland for the UK case, perhaps with the idea that the Irish government might act as the UK advocate within the EU. If so, the reaction to it suggests it will fail and, indeed, that the article is seen as an unnecessarily provocative gesture.

Thus Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, was highly (though diplomatically) critical of it, remarking that it seemed to amount to an attempt to “dismantle elements of the protocol piece by piece”. Media reports in Ireland quote senior officials saying the Irish government will not act as a go-between for the UK, and also that “there was a growing feeling on the EU side that the UK were ‘banking’ concessions offered by the EU”.

Subsequently, there was a much more robust response, the more striking given his traditionally pro-British stance, from the former Taoiseach John Bruton, lacerating Frost-Lewis for refusing to take responsibility for what the UK had signed, and for behaving in a “menacing” manner towards Ireland. It is well worth reading as a comprehensive dismantling of the UK position, including the abundantly clear fact that Frost has no intention of using the chilled meats grace period extension for the purpose of reorganizing supply chains, which was why it was granted (and why it existed in the first place).

Wider implications for UK-EU relations

The article caused ripples well beyond Ireland, as such ‘megaphone diplomacy’ was bound, and presumably intended, to do. Later in the week Maros Sefcovic spoke of a lack of trust, deepened by the Frost-Lewis article, and others of a growing feeling that Frost-Johnson never intended to honour the NIP. Meanwhile the EU Ambassador to the UK suggested that the UK was not interested in finding solutions to the NIP’s operations (implying, I assume, that it wants to ditch it altogether).

In short, all of the things I’ve been saying on this blog for weeks are now increasingly appearing in public statements (I don’t mean to imply any special insight on my part, it’s just that, obviously, I’m not subject to any of the diplomatic constraints that politicians and officials have on what they can say). The question of how the EU responds remains difficult to answer, and probably won’t be clear until the autumn, at the earliest. Sefcovic is talking about stepping up legal action over the unilateral extension of grace periods, but the real issue isn’t this or that disputed issue but the overarching refusal of the UK government to accept the basic tenets of the agreement it signed, and the antagonistic manner with which it conducts itself.

Some in the EU may still think, as some British commentators do, that the UK will quietly become more reasonable whilst continuing to bluster for domestic purposes. I think that is unlikely and, as mentioned, the placing of the Frost-Lewis article in the Irish Times is one indication of that. It also underestimates the extent to which post-Brexit British politics has become detached from rational calculation or, perhaps, operates according a rationality of its own. Thus, as I’ve remarked before, it seems clear that Frost-Johnson believe that their approach works, has no domestic downsides and will have few international repercussions.

The problem for the EU is how to react to a country which behaves in a hostile way, but hasn’t quite gone rogue; a country which alternates sabre-rattling about breaking international law with passive-aggressive talk of ‘our European friends and partners’.  My sense is that the default EU position is to keep talking and to try to dampen down or postpone outright conflict, but for how long is that sustainable?

Increasingly, the situation for the EU seems like that of a law-abiding citizen stuck with the neighbour from hell. At first, you try polite, rational argument – surely, if you just calmly explain your point of view the noisy all-night parties, drunken rows and revving engines will stop? But they just swear at you and turn the music up louder. So you explore legal sanctions, but these are weak and treated by the neighbour as an affront, even a justification for behaving even more badly. The aggravation worsens, but never quite to the point where you can take decisive action. All the time there are more-or-less implicit threats which you, used to reasonable conduct, don’t really know how to deal with. You keep trying to talk, but the more you do the more your neighbour senses your weakness. Perhaps one day, goaded beyond endurance, you lash out – only to have your neighbour report you for harassment. Or perhaps you give up trying, and put up with your nerves being shredded by broken nights and endless rows. It’s an intolerable, yet insoluble, situation – the more so as in this case moving house is impossible.

Brexit bites hard at home

So much for UK-EU relations. Meanwhile, the domestic damage of Brexit is racking up. Six months on from the end of the transition period, there is ever-more detail emerging about the damage to a wide variety of sectors where exporting has become more difficult and more expensive, with 17% of companies that used to trade with the EU having stopped doing so (£). Inevitably it will have been smaller traders who are most likely to have given up, but firms which have incorporated the new costs will also suffer in terms of reduced competitiveness.

All this has downstream consequences for employment and tax revenues, but the immediate looming crisis is the supply disruptions caused by a lack of HGV drivers. This is substantially, though by no means entirely, linked to Brexit and although there have been warnings for months it is only now feeding through into tangible gaps on supermarket shelves (as well as shortages of, for example, construction materials), even as food rots unpicked in fields. Astonishingly, the government response is to temporarily allow even longer working hours for HGV drivers, something greeted with dismay by the haulage industry as being neither a safe nor a sustainable solution.

The wider issue is that of skills gaps caused by the end of freedom of movement of people (£). One easy, and not unreasonable, response is to say that firms should pay more and/or offer better conditions of employment and/or invest more in training. However, apart from the fact that this also implies consumers paying higher prices (which, again, may not be unreasonable), the underlying problem is not shortages in this or that sector but across the board, and it derives mainly from the ageing demographics of UK society (although there are debates about what these look like and what they imply).

Not for the first time in recent history the UK economy needs more immigration for economic reasons. The tragedy, however, is not that ending of freedom of movement ended an easy answer to this need, it is that freedom of movement meant so much more than economic migration – it enabled lives and families to be created and enriched in non-economic ways, as well. Skills shortages may be the most obvious, but are only the most superficial, sign of what has been lost.

The unending culture war

The intangible losses implied by that go wider than freedom of movement. Whilst it would be ridiculous to blame Brexit for any and every intolerance or nastiness in British society, there is a palpable sense that Britain – or England, anyway - has become meaner and coarser as a result, or at least that it has enabled the more open expression of mean and coarse sentiments. That can’t be proved but, if nothing else, the fact that Johnson’s government extended what worked in campaigning for Brexit into the wider, now daily fought, culture war has pushed things in that direction. After all, you can’t have a culture war in which there are no cultural casualties. Perhaps worse than that, in a culture war neither victory nor defeat can ever be declared: it must always feed on some new outrage.

That is one, and arguably one of the most severe, legacies of Brexit. Not just because of a general coarsening but because ‘remain’ and ‘leave’ are now conflated with the wider culture war battles. Empirical evidence doesn’t really support it, but pro-Brexit commentators like Matthew Lynn (£) explicitly link ‘pro and anti-maskers’ with remainers and leavers. Others make the same linkage with ‘woke’ and ‘anti-woke’ opinions, and this in turn gets linked with all the stuff about ‘cancel culture’ and so on. To see how these and other things get mashed up together by the culture warriors, a good place to look is the recent interview on GBNews – itself a medium and outcome of the culture war – with Douglas Murray. Even the football tournament which some readers may be aware is currently underway is being linked to Brexit in a wide variety of ways (there’s a whole post that could be written just about that).

Brexit is crucial to this culture war, not just as having been a gateway to it but because there was a vote on Brexit. It was this victory – narrow and tainted as it was – which gave a new inflection to what had always been rhetorically claimed as ‘the silent majority’ by putting a number on it. With that came the idea of ‘the will of the people’ and the positioning of its opponents as not only wrongheaded but anti-democratic.

The paradox of Brexit

At the risk of labouring the earlier analogy, imagine yourself, now, an unwilling occupant of the house of the neighbour from hell. Your home has been taken over by anti-social hooligans and you are stuck with it as they rampage from room to room, smashing things up. This is effectively the situation of half the British people. Of course you might decide to leave if you can and, unbelievably, Brexiters are now denouncing an “EU plot” to attract British citizens to take up citizenship in EU countries because, as Bernard Jenkin explains, “their career opportunities are so limited [compared] with what they were”. The specific loss being raised was that of their freedom of movement, and the refusal of the government to have a mobility agreement with the EU. Only a dolt like Jenkin could fail to understand it is a consequence of the Brexit he advocated.

The two components of the analogy are linked. Inherent in any populist politics, and one of the ways in which ‘populist’ is not the same as ‘popular’, is that it claims to speak for a people always under attack (thus Lynn, again, writes of an “EU plot to destroy the City” [£]). That is why it is so belligerent in its use of symbols, such as the flag, in a way that a truly popular politics would be too self-confident to need to be. The perceived attack is both from external enemies who would dominate the people and internal traitors who would undermine and weaken them. Waving the flag is meant to scarify the external enemy, whilst exposing the traitors who do not fly it or of whom it can be claimed, no matter how absurdly, that they mock it.

Yet the two elements often come into sharp conflict, as can be seen in the current situation regarding asylum seekers. On the one hand, the government is developing an ever-more spiteful and mean-spirited policy with its Nationality and Borders Bill published this week, in clear pursuit of its domestic culture war. On the other hand, it has discovered that Brexit makes it harder, not easier, to pursue such a policy and that it needs the agreement of other countries to replace the UK’s previous membership of the EU’s ‘Dublin regulations’.

As the BBC’s Home editor Mark Easton put it, it is “the paradox of Brexit that taking control of your borders requires more international co-operation, not less”. That doesn’t just apply to control of borders, of course. It exposes the entire fantasy of a sovereignty that can be exercised without regard for that of others, and the lie inherent in the ‘take back control’ slogan. It really is time that David Frost and Boris Johnson understood this, but there’s absolutely no sign that they will.


*For an assessment of Donaldson, the DUP and the NIP see Dr Lisa Claire Whitten’s analysis on the UK in a Changing Europe website

Friday 2 July 2021

Still stuck on the Mobius Strip

David Frost presumably speaks for the whole government in his claim that Britain is “now looking forward”. It can only be presumed, since virtually no other government minister, including the Prime Minister, actually says anything in public about Brexit any more. That in itself is remarkable, as if Brexit was either a triviality or, perhaps more to the point, an embarrassment, like a relative whose drunken rantings are studiously ignored at family parties.

Yet the even more remarkable thing about Brexit is how the government – in the person of Frost – continues to go around precisely the same old loop about what it actually means. Central to this Mobius Strip of Brexiter madness, as I’ve been calling it for some years, are two inter-related false claims. One is that there is a form of trade deal which can largely replicate single market membership but without freedom of movement of people or ECJ involvement. The other is that such a deal would also mean that ‘the Irish border issue’ would substantially disappear. Its generic form is the recurring fantasy that we’ve left the EU, but we shouldn’t be treated as if we’ve left the EU.

It might have been thought that these fantasies had been jettisoned when Boris Johnson agreed both the Withdrawal Agreement which, via the Northern Ireland Protocol (NIP), established the Irish Sea border, and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) which created a trade arrangement entirely different (and necessarily inferior) to that of single market membership. The two are linked, in multiple ways, but most importantly because the relative thinness of the TCA entails a relative thickness to the Irish Sea Border.

The enduring fantasies of Brexit

However, as the ongoing disputes over the NIP show, the fantasies still endure. In the latest post on his invariably excellent Europe blog, RTE’s Tony Connelly dissects Frost’s stance on these disputes. At its heart (as per numerous recent posts on this blog) is the idea that ‘regulatory equivalence’, described in the latest version of Frost’s proposals as “equivalence with teeth”, removes the need for regulatory alignment and, supposedly, the need for most border checks. This possibility also means, in Frost’s view, that the whole thinking behind what was originally Theresa May’s backstop was flawed and, in turn, that the frontstop (that he negotiated) was not necessary, and really only an artefact of the concessions that May had already made.

This is now locked-in as the Brexiters’ analysis of why their project has gone so horribly wrong as shown, for example, in a recent article by Bernard Jenkin. Some of this is the boilerplate stuff about obstructive remainers and the nasty EU, but at its core is the claim that what should have been agreed (and still may be!) is “a proper free trade agreement with mutual recognition of product standards, and regulatory equivalence”. This in turn would do away with the need for the NIP which, like Frost, he regards as “the forced inheritance of Mrs May’s backstop” and resulting (of course) from EU and Irish perfidy, with Leo Varadkar painted as the particular villain.

In these assessments, Frost and Jenkin are still stuck in the confusion that has dogged the Brexit process, namely the fundamental difference between a free trade agreement and a single market. It was present during the referendum campaign, expressed later by David Davis in his “exact same benefits” formulation, repeated endlessly in the promises of ‘frictionless trade’, and it lives on in Jenkin’s refusal to understand the failure of Brexit and, most dangerously, in Frost’s continuing attempts to turn a fantasy into a reality.

For it is a fantasy. Commenting on Frost’s proposals on regulatory equivalence, the leading trade expert David Henig points out that “the major problem is this doesn’t exist anywhere in the world”. It simply isn’t true to say, as Jenkin does, that a “proper” trade agreement would or could have the characteristics he claims. Limited agreements on mutual recognition and equivalence do exist, but they fall very far short of the scope that is being proposed and that would be necessary to address the volume and diversity of UK-EU trade. As so often, Brexiters latch on to half-understood concepts to imagine that there is some ‘magic bullet’ that will enable the UK to leave the single market and yet enjoy its benefits.

But we’ve been all round this loop before, endlessly, throughout 2017 and 2018 (for explanation of why Jenkin’s and Frost’s proposals are a non-starter, see, for example, the Institute for Government briefing of September 2017, the UK Trade Policy Observatory article of August 2018 and the EU Law Analysis blog post of March 2018). It’s all old, utterly discredited, ground. The respected Eurasia Group analyst Mujtaba Rahman, in an almost despairing comment on Jenkin’s article puts it this way: “Why can’t Bernard Jenkin and his idiotic Merry Men understand? The full benefits of Single Market are unlocked for those who accept its entire ecosystem: dynamic reg[ulatory] alignment, oversight, 4 freedoms. The terms he is wining [= whining? pining?] for are fantasy; have no basis in reality”.

The corollary of that fantasy is the entirely dishonest notion that the NIP was unnecessary, growing from the dishonest view that the backstop was unnecessary, growing from the dishonest view that the Irish border issue was confected and is nonsense. It is bizarre, and really rather despicable, that even five years on so many Brexiters claim this. It’s not as if it is a particularly difficult idea to grasp: the single market and customs union removed regulatory and customs borders; leaving them reinstates those borders. But, collectively, the Brexiters have persuaded themselves this is not true, egged on by the echo chamber of their think tanks and discussion groups. They don’t understand because they don’t want to understand.

Chilled meat – latest news

The psychological or anthropological peculiarities of Brexit tribalism matter as they are a large part of what got us into this mess and, more importantly, because under Frost they continue to shape post-Brexit policy. The most recent argument over chilled meats has been temporarily dealt with by the EU accepting the UK’s request to extended the grace period for their movement between Great Britain and Northern Ireland (and announcing some relaxations of other rules). But this only postpones the conflict, and in fact itself expresses aspects of the conflict.

The EU have emphasised that this is not a postponement in order to agree a way to keep the movement flowing permanently. It is to allow businesses to re-organize supply chains so that Northern Ireland sells chilled meats sourced there or in the EU (most obviously Ireland), the point being that there is a general ban on third countries sending chilled meat products into the single market. This was accepted by the UK in the NIP, and in the original creation of the grace period last December the government’s declaration also appeared to recognize it was only in order to allow an adjustment. However, now, Frost is saying that the extension is to allow the creation of an agreement whereby chilled meats will continue to go GB>NI permanently.

This is wrapped up with the bigger issue of the UK’s desire for an equivalence regime rather than a dynamic alignment regime for sanitary and phyto-sanitary (SPS) regulations. However, even were there to be an equivalence regime (on the lines of the EU-New Zealand arrangement) it would not prevent the chilled meats ban coming into effect. All this is now set to be the ‘battle of the autumn’, when a variety of grace periods, including those extended by the UK without EU agreement which are the subject of legal action, are set to expire*.

It has become quite common, not just amongst Brexiters, to point out that the chilled meats issue is only a relatively minor one, and to suggest that the EU ought to show flexibility over it. But it is important to recognize why it is so pivotal. The UK has not made any fuss about the fact that the ban already applies to GB>EU trade (there was no grace period, so this has been the case since 1 January); it is its application to GB>NI trade that is contested. So what is at stake is the UK’s more general refusal to accept that Northern Ireland remains effectively within the EU single market for goods. This is at the heart of the NIP and, therefore, the chilled meats dispute is not a triviality because were the EU to be ‘flexible’ about it then, in principle, the entire edifice of the NIP would be threatened.

The fact that the UK sought, and obtained, EU agreement to the latest chilled meats extension, rather than extending it unilaterally, might be read as a sign of a more conciliatory approach, perhaps as a result of the intervention of the Biden administration. However, Tony Connelly’s sources suggest that “the Johnson-Frost hardball approach has survived intact”. I don’t have Connelly’s sources (in fact, I don’t have any sources other then those publicly available to everyone) but this is consistent with what I have been arguing for weeks.  

Without repeating those arguments, there is no doubt in my mind that Johnson and Frost have persuaded themselves that their approach has worked, and I am sure that they interpret the EU’s acceptance of extension, in the face of their threat otherwise to unilaterally extend, as evidence of that. Their ultimate aim is to chip away at the NIP until it becomes meaningless and, if the EU allows that to happen, leaving it, and especially Ireland, with the problems of dealing with potentially non-compliant goods finding their way into the single market, including the possibility of outbreaks of animal or even human diseases.

Dangerous nonsense

All this is obviously much more dangerous than in the earlier iterations of Brexiters’ refusal to understand what Brexit meant. In the past, that was an internal UK matter, shaping the debate about what kind of agreements might be sought with the EU. Now those agreements have been made but, as I noted at the time of the Withdrawal Agreement (December 2019), “many in the ERG will now be thinking that Johnson’s deal was only the bastard offspring of May’s ill-fated premiership and the ‘remainer parliament’, and feel no allegiance to it. They kept quiet during the election campaign, which required them to pledge support for Johnson’s deal, but that won’t necessarily last”.

That proved true as within months Brexiters began agitating to abandon it, including some of those ERG MPs who had voted for it. One outgrowth of this was the legal action launched last February which aimed ultimately at having the NIP declared illegal, which has this week been rejected by the High Court in Belfast (there may be an appeal). The case was brought by Unionist Brexiters, including Ben Habib who, as was drily noted in the judgment, had, when a Brexit Party MEP, voted for the agreement that he now wanted declared illegal. That isn’t a legal flaw in the case, but it does expose its political ludicrousness.

The latest iteration of this nonsense comes from pro-Brexit economist Graham Gudgin who also argues that the NIP was only agreed because in 2019 Parliament, and especially the Benn Act, had deprived the government of the leverage of threatening no deal – itself an absurd proposition. Even more extraordinarily, he then argues that the government may not have really understood what it had agreed to, perhaps because of lack of experience within the civil service. This is really the most tragi-comic of ironies. For whilst constantly bellowing that Britain is a sovereign nation and the sovereign equal of the EU, the Brexiters are also saying we want a new deal because we didn’t understand the one that we signed!

The vain imagination is that if they go once more around the Mobius strip they will end up at the promised land. They won’t, of course, but the process of trying will create yet more instability and yet more deterioration of the UK’s reputation. That will not deter Frost, though, because built in to the ‘hardball’ theory is that you have to live through some ‘turbulence’ in order to achieve victory. Gudgin, meanwhile, recognizes that this might ultimately end in a trade war, but is not concerned as “the imbalance in trade” is to the UK’s advantage. In other words, they are now round to that part of the loop where ‘the EU need us more than we need them’ and, by implication, all the stuff about German car makers.

Sovereignty and reality

As Maros Sefcovic re-iterated this week, a solution to most of the practical problems caused by the NIP is on offer from the EU in the form of a ‘Swiss-style’ regulatory alignment agreement, which could even be temporary were the UK to decide to diverge in the future. This is still rejected by the UK on grounds of ‘sovereignty’ and yet, although the mechanism is very different, this is pretty much the situation which now obtains with data protection. For this week the EU announced that it would treat UK data protection regulations as ‘adequate’ for purposes of commercial and other data sharing activities between the UK and the EU. This is hugely important for both business and security, so is good news (though it wasn’t done out of kindness). But the point is it is predicated upon, and its continuation is contingent upon, the fact that UK law in this area continues to be essentially the same as EU law.

This doesn’t say much for the Brexiters’ concept of sovereignty, since it is entirely in the EU’s gift, and reflects the reality of the UK’s economic and geographical proximity to the EU which makes that concept so silly. Still, it’s true that the UK is free to diverge in the future, if it is willing to take the consequences of losing adequacy approval. So, by the same token, why not do the same over SPS regulations, especially since the government’s avowed policy is not to lower standards? There is no logical difference in terms of sovereignty (and, as someone used to say, would it really be so awful to be like Switzerland?), so I think the answer can only lie in the point made earlier: that it is part of an attempt to resile from the NIP in toto.

It is the reality of economic and geographical proximity, and the limitations of naïve ideas about sovereignty, which tie together many of the latest Brexit events and will go on doing so. For example, this week planned legislation was announced for the UK’s post-Brexit state aid policy. But we have yet to see what it will actually allow us to do that we couldn’t whilst in the EU (£), it will still have to be compliant with the level playing field commitments in the TCA, and also with WTO rules. Far less high profile was the announcement that the British Standards Institute will be accepted as a non-EEA member of various European standards committees (this isn’t an EU decision, per se, but it is relevant to post-Brexit standards alignment).

Then there was the news of Nissan’s investment in electric car and battery production. That is good in itself, though we do not know how much government support was involved, but again it reflects the proximity of the EU market (few, if any, UK-built Nissans will be sold anywhere else, no matter how many trade deals the UK makes on the other side of the world). Bringing battery production to the UK (via a Chinese partner) is part of ensuring that Nissan’s cars will continue to meet the rules of origin requirements of the TCA so that they can be sold tariff-free in the EU. It’s an accommodation to Brexit, rather than a benefit of Brexit. From this point of view it is possible to argue (but impossible to prove) that it wouldn’t have happened but for Brexit, although it’s also bound up with the move to electric vehicles in both the EU and the UK.

Naturally, despite normally being so insistent on proof of causality, Brexiters are crowing that this discredits the warnings of Nissan and remainers, conveniently forgetting that those warnings related mainly to the no-deal Brexit so many of them advocated. In fact, car makers are an important case where the TCA has considerable value, although it has by no means been a panacea for them or for Japanese companies in the UK. Other significant industries have fared less well, such as financial services where it has this week been rather quietly announced that the UK is giving up on seeking a regulatory equivalence deal with the EU.

Accommodation, too, lies behind the extension of Jersey’s ‘amnesty’ on French fishing rights in its waters, avoiding a resumption of the high-profile conflicts earlier this year. As with the NIP grace periods, or the postponement of UK import controls, it seems that Brexit works best when it isn’t actually implemented. No extension, though, to the deadline for EU citizens to apply for settled status which expired this week amidst technological chaos and a huge backlog. None of the ‘flexibility’ or ‘pragmatism’ Frost keeps calling for from the EU for them. For the one thing which Brexiters show no sign of wanting to revisit is their unremitting hostility to foreigners, even if that is not true of the public in general (£) and even if post-Brexit immigration policy is beginning to cause massive problems across multiple sectors. Hence also the continuing refusal to countenance a mobility agreement with the EU, despite the damage to Britain’s touring arts industry which Frost rather sneeringly dismissed this week.

The Danse Macabre

So the Danse Macabre of Brexit continues, with fantasy and reality locked in a grotesque embrace, or what The Sun would perhaps call a ‘steamy clinch’.

On the one hand, there are all these disparate daily attempts across multiple areas of life and commerce to reconcile, accommodate, work round or endure the conflict between a half-baked theory of sovereignty and the practicalities of an interconnected continent – whether they be about regulations and standards, trade, fishing, or individuals and families trying to secure their residency rights. In a sense one might say that, in doing so, people are trying to ‘move on’ from Brexit and to ‘look forward’ as Frost declaims.

On the other hand, even as institutions, companies and individuals try to make workable the mess that Brexit has created for them, the Brexiters themselves, Frost included, can’t move on at all. Hence they remain stuck on the same loop they have been going round since 2016. In that fetid stagnancy, they endlessly revisit the contradictions between their delusions of what Brexit should be, the realities of what it could be, and the facts of what they agreed that it actually would be. There’s no good reason to expect it to end any time soon.


*There is a confusing little legal wrinkle in all this which, to the best of my non-lawyer’s understanding is this: the chilled meats extension announced last December was technically ‘unilateral’ on the part of the UK, but was nevertheless agreed (‘taken note of’) by the EU as a pragmatic way of avoiding a formal treaty change. As such, it was uncontentious. By contrast, the extension of various other grace periods last March was literally done unilaterally by the UK with no EU agreement, hence it is this which has given rise to ongoing legal dispute.