As we have left the EU, the “trivial” task of negotiating the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) is done. It is now a legally binding international treaty, including the Irish Protocol.
We now move onto the far more complex future relationship talks. It always seemed impossible that the talks could be concluded successfully within the 10-month transition period. The fact the WA took three years to negotiate is ominous.
Whereas the EU approach has been clear for some time, there has been lots of “sabre-rattling” from the UK. As Chris Grey says, Brexiters need to stop campaigning and start governing.
More clarity on the UK’s approach has appeared with the David Frost Brussels speech (full text here). Alas, it still seems to be campaign mode based rather than an attempt to confront reality.
The approach as set out in the speech is flawed on many different levels, based on Brexit zealotry and British exceptionalism, rather than evidence, logic, strategy and intellectual coherence. The intended audience appeared to be Daily Telegraph readers. If targeted at an EU audience it looks insulting, arrogant and above all, as humorously illustrated in Fig. 1, naive.
It seems that rather than working with the EU, not content with Brexit, the ultimate aim of the current UK government is to destroy the EU.
I can’t find a serious commentator who has much good to say about the speech. Prof Richard Murphy, for example, puts it well in his piece: David Frost’s vision for Europe is a fantasy based on a pretence:
It is a fantasy. Or a delusion. It is a pretence, and a dangerous one. What it is not is an explanation of anything. As a vision it is even less successful. As a forecast, it looks dire. And this is the man tasked with negotiating with the EU. Heaven help us. The Tories had better still pray, because if they don’t things are even worse than this speech suggests.
One of the few people who see any grounds for mild optimism is Tony Connelly, but I share John O’Brennan’s pessimism.
@tconnellyRTE parses the David Frost speech and finds some nuances in what divergence May mean. I do not share even the mild optimism. This will get ugly pretty quickly next month. https://t.co/gi4w0uRtj7— John O’Brennan (@JohnOBrennan2) February 18, 2020
It seems that rather than negotiating in “good faith“, it’s more than likely that the UK has no intention of doing an ambitious deal with the EU. Rather, it prefers what it euphemistically calls an “Australia-style agreement” (aka no-deal dressed up in a sexy bikini) and to blame the intransigent EU for any adverse outcomes.
This, of course, may well be disastrous for the UK as a whole — a neoliberal experiment destined to make the 1980’s look like a minor rebalancing of the UK economy. Very good, I suspect, for the very wealthy and the shady Russian and far-right American funders of Brexit.
The UK as a whole seems to be moving towards a more authoritarian, poorer and more closed country. The new points-based immigration system is economically and culturally impoverishing, cynically designed to appeal to the basest instincts of the English electorate.
The main battleground and likely flashpoint, however, is the NI protocol.
Effect on the Northern Ireland Protocol
A no-deal, or minimal deal, makes the Northern Irish protocol far more difficult to implement. In order to protect the GFA, which commits all concerned to support the development of an all-island economy, the border on the island of Ireland needs to remain open. This made a border of some sort on the Irish Sea inevitable. The higher the tariff and non-tariff barriers are, the more onerous the checks need to be.
The PM insisting there will be no checks is unhelpful. As Jess Seargent says in her piece: the PM’s rhetoric risks the Northern Ireland protocol not being operational in time. Unhelpful may be the wrong word. Is the PM really on top of his brief or even, as it appears, intent on tearing up an internationally binding treaty?
In Julian Smith, the UK had an excellent NI Secretary who was totally across the issues, including the Irish Protocol, and was very capable of telling truth to power. Before being sacked he gave considerable confidence that the PM was simply mistaken, or that his statements were purely for domestic consumption.
The new NI Secretary Brandon Lewis, in contrast, seems clueless, parroting his boss’s line that there will be no border in the Irish Sea. Rumour has it that it was Smith’s courage and ability to tell truth to power that caused him to be sacked.
There are at least six possibilities.
First, Lewis is simply ignorant – given the quality of many recent NI secretaries, this is a distinct possibility. Apparently he was spotted thumbing through his ministerial folder containing a document entitled “A beginner’s guide to the political scene in Northern Ireland” — possibly containing Fig. 2?
Second, as a member of cabinet of sycophants and yes-sir-three-bags-full-sirs he is simply reiterating a party line that he knows to be untrue.
Third, HMG has every intention of violating the Irish Protocol part of the WA, and an international treaty. Northern Ireland seems to be of little consequence to HMG, just a pawn to be played in a greater game. Prof Michael Dougan has come to a similar conclusion – further down this thread (below) he writes: “Johnson has already proven: NI = zero to him“.
Fourth, despite the sabre-rattling, the UK will eventually pivot to something like the Norway+CU option. This seems unlikely given the rhetoric from this government.
Fifth, the Brexiters may believe that they can persuade Ireland back into the UK’s orbit — an insane delusion. Ireland sees Britain as a Jekyll and Hyde country. It likes Jekyll (the “Remain” side of the UK) but loathes the Hyde side of Britain, currently firmly in charge. The minuscule chance that Ireland would ever rejoin the UK evaporated long ago. Nevertheless, the Brexiters have never let reality get in their way and their knowledge of Ireland is so flawed that some may believe Ireland will join their Titanic voyage.
Sixth, Brexiters like to believe that Ireland is of little consequence, not a real sovereign country, merely a puny rebellious former province of the empire that, if it persists in inconveniencing the EU in striking a deal with the UK, it will be thrown under the bus as a pawn that has outlived its usefulness. In effect, the EU will force sea border controls on Ireland, driving it out of the frictionless single market. Believing this, of course, necessitates believing that the other guarantor of the GFA, the US, would acquiesce, that Ireland lacks agency in the EU despite having already clearly demonstrated it, and that the European Parliament would agree. Ireland rejoining the UK is many times more likely.
I have previously written two pieces on why bullying Ireland is unlikely to work: Will Sabre Rattling towards Ireland Work? and Will virtual Liffey Gunboats Work? Economically, Ireland is increasingly decoupled from Britain. Irish exports to GB are now less than 9% of the total and continue on a downward trajectory as shown in Fig. 3.
Of these options, the third, which amounts to constructive violation of the GFA (necessitating NI border controls to protect both the EU single market Ireland’s place in it), seems most likely. For the EU no-deal is certainly better than a bad deal–economically. The opening gambit from the UK is clearly something that the EU could never accept and is almost certainly designed for domestic consumption and a blame game. It also looks like either a compunction-free attempt to use the prospect of conflict in Ireland as a lever, or a shameless indifference to that possibility and the costs.
If Dominic Cummings is truly in charge then it seems likely that NI and what happens there, as well as on the island of Ireland, is truly a matter no consequence, as speculated by Michael Dougan and as illustrated in Fig. 4.
Is the UK really prepared to rip-up an international treaty and ignore the Irish Protocol? The consequences for the UK will be intensely painful. The EU will certainly apply sanctions and any chance of a trade deal with Washington will vanish.
Strangely, the UK’s asymmetric vulnerabilities in a conflictual situation with Ireland are rarely mentioned. Ireland, together with the Netherlands, supplies most of the food the UK imports form the EU (27% of its needs). Reportedly, almost half of the UK govt’s data is held in Irish data centres. Currently, the UK has a £13.5bn trade surplus with Ireland. Ireland on the other hand, is the most food secure country in the world, will continue to be able to source goods and services from the single market, and has been preparing for no deal since the day the Brexit referendum was called.
Another possibility, which is not often expressed openly, is that HMG looks on NI as more of a liability rather than an asset. It costs more in net terms annually than EU membership ever did (currently c.£10Bn vs £8.2Bn). Despite being, on a per capita basis, the most heavily subsidised region of the UK it is also one of the poorest performing. Dominic Lawson writes in the Times that: A united Ireland is the secret Tory dream.
My higher echelon Tory party contact says the DUP is largely despised by Conservatives. Whereas the “Big House” (i.e., affluent land-owning) Unionists fitted in well, the DUP are considered to be less trustworthy and even less “British” than the Scots. The humiliation of May has not been forgotten and… “revenge is a dish best served cold“.
Is a United Ireland within the next few years likely?
The GFA (Belfast Agreement) makes provision for Irish reunification. The NI Secretary can call for a border poll at any time but is obliged to do so if:
The Secretary of State shall exercise the power under paragraph 1 [call a border poll] if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a united Ireland.
Some opinion polls, such as this Lord Ashcroft poll, say the majority is already there, but at 51%-49% it is really too close to call. My own feeling is that it is too early to call one, but preparations need to get underway urgently to establish what a United Ireland would look like. Should it be, for example, a unitary state, a federation or even go in the direction of Switzerland with cantonisation?
Ireland, of course, also has to agree and hold a separate referendum, but it will not do so without extensive preparations which have yet to commence. (Irish referendums are on the basis of an agreed text, including draft legislation, so that people know in advance exactly what they’re voting for). There are two major worries, the economy and the political and social effects of integrating the Unionists (in particular the Loyalists). Nevertheless, I think Northern Ireland deserves to be treated better than it has been and, under new management, improvement could be rapid.
NI Economic Performance
The NI economic performance is summed up in Fig. 5. It’s dire. The NI economy has not recovered to its pre-financial crash peak and is 3.6% below Q2 2007. The UK as a whole has done better with a GDP now 13.6% higher. “Better” is of course relative. Given that 12 years have passed the improvement equates to an average UK growth rate of only around 1% per year – the worst decade since the Industrial Revolution. Ireland, by contrast, has grown by c. 61% in that period and is in danger of overheating.
Productivity in NI (not shown on the chart) is actually falling as manufacturing jobs are being replaced with lower-paid ones in the retail and services sectors.
On top of this, of course, is the fact that NI does not pay its own way. If it were not for an annual injection of c. £10bn from London (c. 25% of NI GDP) then NI would be in an even worse state.
Unionists and Loyalists
There is an element of the NI community irreconcilably opposed to a United Ireland. I’m sure many Unionists would integrate well but many Loyalists are fanatical Brexit supporters, some with similar attitudes to “foreigners”, including the Irish on the island of Ireland–people whom DUP MP Sammy Wilson has referred to as “ethnics”–to those of the English Defence League.
Accommodating these people will be a real challenge if they resort to violence and try to destabilise a new Ireland.
Any pretence that the current government is a “One Nation” Conservative one is gone. It is pandering to the populist “Hyde” aspect of the English psyche. The new points-based immigration system, designed to gratify it but with as little damage to London as possible, is crazy and will have many destructive unintended consequences. As Ian Dunt writes: The end of free movement: This is a nation dismantling itself over nonsense.
My previous piece Fascism as a Methodology rather than an Ideology seems outdated after only a week and we continue in the direction of National Conservatism.
The Northern Ireland Protocol will be a flash point. Conceivably, a United Ireland is nearer than many think. As Lenin said
“There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen“
We need to restore England to its Jekyll persona, but it will be an uphill struggle and it may take the break-up of the UK to achieve it. English historian David Edgerton, however, is sanguine about that prospect.
The challenge for the EU is how to manage an angry neighbouring 3rd country with a hostile government that will attempt to use the consequences of its own actions to entrench its position domestically. Meanwhile, the need for peaceful international collaboration has never been greater.
The recent EU decision to designate the Cayman Islands as a tax haven, something enabled by Brexit and the removal of British ability to block this, points to the likely future: a slow turning of the screw on dark money and illiberal capitalism by increased transparency and regulation.
Still largely unremarked in the British media, amidst the fuss about the possibility of such impertinences as the Greeks even thinking about the return of the Elgin marbles, are the EU’s plans for data sovereignty and their implications for trade.
A glance at https://afterbrexit.tech/data-protection will reveal that the EU already has a range of options for cooking the British bullfrog as gently or as quickly as it cares to, from sous vide to full-on microwaving. When the EU’s digital goals include protecting European democracy by acting as the global leader in regulating hypercapitalism’s use of data, dealing with Brexit should be a smaller trial that the EU cannot and will not lose, whatever the collateral effects.