Sunday 25 August 2019

Colm McCarthy: 'Britannia Unbound? Hard Border offers only chains'

Boris Johnson espouses Brexit's greatest delusion - that the EU is a nuisance to be got rid of with zero economic cost

CHIEF BREXITEER: Boris Johnson is ignoring the realities of Brexit
CHIEF BREXITEER: Boris Johnson is ignoring the realities of Brexit
Colm McCarthy

Colm McCarthy

'Why begin by assuming that our EU friends will not wish to compromise? They have every reason to want to compromise, and that is what we will seek - a compromise," explained the third UK prime minister since the Brexit referendum in the House of Commons last Thursday, to the nodding acquiescence of the third Secretary of State for Exiting the EU since this doddle of an assignment was created by Theresa May in the summer of 2016. The compromise Boris Johnson has in mind would require the European Union to renounce the Withdrawal Agreement, itself a compromise crafted to meet the UK's requirements, and to structure a trade deal for the UK in breach of its existing commitments to partner countries around the world.

Previous exit ministers have failed to deliver on the Brexiteer assignment as advertised, because it is undeliverable. Viewed from Brussels (and Berlin and Paris) it is unfortunate that a large and important European country has chosen to bail out, but there is a limit to what can be done to ease its departure. That limit has been reached in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Johnson, like May before him, wants a "deal" which would see the UK enjoy the privileges of EU membership, codenamed frictionless trade, without any of the obligations, including the legal and political structures which make it possible. That this cannot happen was explained to his predecessors by various diligent Whitehall civil servants to no avail and has been explained to Johnson afresh by European leaders in the past few days. When May sought and was granted an extension to October 31 of the operative date for the UK's unilateral departure from the European Union, the text of the European Council decision included the following at paragraph 12: "This extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement. Any unilateral commitment, statement or other act by the United Kingdom should be compatible with the letter and the spirit of the Withdrawal Agreement and must not hamper its implementation. Such an extension cannot be used to start negotiations on the future relationship."

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This, to be clear, is not a statement of opinion from Michel Barnier, Jean-Claude Juncker, Donald Tusk or any other "Brussels bureaucrat". It is a condition attaching to the decision of the council granting a deferral to a departing member, a concession offered in accordance with its established procedures by a treaty-bound organisation. It is open to any member of the EU to quit but it is not incumbent on the surviving members to re-invent the rulebook enshrined in treaties and laws freely agreed, to accommodate the undeliverable expectations of the country which has chosen to depart. The EU's unwillingness to re-open the deal as agreed is not just about the Northern Ireland backstop, and not just about solidarity with Irish Government concerns.

Johnson's speech on appointment to the premiership, and his subsequent remarks in parliament, are a faithful reproduction of the central delusion of Brexit - that EU membership is a nuisance and can be dispensed with at zero economic and political cost. This is not true, was never true, and will not come true with repetition by a freshly-minted Brexiteer prime minister. The European Union is a deep internal market defined by a sharp distinction between members and third countries. If Britain would like to have the same relationship with Europe as is enjoyed by India and Russia, this Johnson can certainly deliver. An even better deal along the lines of those agreed by countries like Canada has been offered.

He has won the premiership through promising that Britannia Unbound is headed for an unprecedented and far more desirable status available to nobody else, to which it feels entitled by history and providence.

As the Taoiseach pointed out in Donegal last Thursday, this is an internal British discussion, an overheard mad uncle in the basement having a shouting match with himself. These are not the Taoiseach's words of course, but one is free to imagine that they must be his sentiments. Unsurprisingly they are shared in the capitals of Europe.

A central component in the Brexiteer delusion is that the continental Europeans are sticking with the Northern Ireland backstop only because they feel solidarity with plucky little Ireland. The shape of the withdrawal agreement reflects more prosaic concerns - it was crafted to meet the UK's requirements regarding Northern Ireland while preserving the integrity of the internal market. It was not designed just to please the Irish, who would have preferred no Brexit at all, nor to entice the UK into a cunning trap.

The EU has chosen a variety of special arrangements on its external borders, for example the relaxed controls on the frontier between the southern end of Croatia, an EU member, and Bosnia just a few kilometres inland. Bosnia is a poor country, a recipient of generous aid from Europe and in many ways a protectorate of the international community. A Bosnia-sized hole in the external frontier for fresh vegetables is a different proposition from a blind-eye gap to the United Kingdom, a large and prosperous modern country with extensive ties to every trading economy in the world. There will be no UK-sized hole in the external border of the internal market.

It is a tribute to the capacity for Brexiteer self-deception that the UK is simultaneously a strong and important modern economy while sufficiently minor to accommodate a leaky land frontier with the EU. If the UK becomes a third country, it must have a series of borders with the EU, in France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Ireland and everywhere else. The UK government has negotiated a form of Brexit which has accommodated its idiosyncratic concerns while meeting EU, and not just Irish, red lines. The principal red line is that the integrity of the internal market is not negotiable.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement enjoyed critical support from the government of the United States but also from the EU, which agreed to funnel substantial cash in the direction of Border counties and is still doing so. The British and Irish governments may have been the prime movers, but it is insufficiently acknowledged that the Good Friday Agreement was a very European solution to the problem of contested land borders, which is widespread and well understood in continental Europe. The island of Britain has none.

Angela Merkel has referred more than once to her childhood experience of a divided Germany and European politicians in 1998 were conscious of the disastrous conflicts, just ended, over borders in the western Balkans. The European solution has been to eliminate barriers at contested frontiers wherever possible, to the point where they are no longer visible and no longer a vehicle for political mischief. Making difficult borders invisible is one of the European values which Johnson claims to share with "our EU friends".

The Brexit Party, which did well at Tory expense in the European Parliament elections, has now been outflanked, since not even Nigel Farage can out-Brexit Johnson. An early run to the polls caused by intransigent foreigners appears to be the strategy, delivering a secure majority, a no-deal crash-out and a hard Border.

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