This column was written just before the UK and EU agreed a post Brexit deal. It first appeared on Broadsheet.ie on December 14th, 2020. In this column I argue strongly that the lesson we must take from how the British government conducted itself during those talks with the EU is that nobody on these islands, in Europe, or even further afield, can trust the Westminster government. The duplicity and mendacity demonstrated in talks could well succeed Johnson himself for as long as there is a Tory component to any future British government.
Considering that I have fairly quick to criticise Micheál Martin over the past few months, it is only fair that I be just as swift in acknowledging when he gets it right. That is precisely what the Taoiseach did on yesterday morning’s Andrew Marr Show (BBC1).
The Taoiseach came across as calm, authoritative and knowledgeable. He made it clear that Ireland wanted to see a deal agreed, but that the EU27 were solidly behind Michel Barnier and Ursula von der Leyen. Whatever happens between now and December 2022, Micheál Martin can look back at his Marr Show interview as one of the finer moments of his brief stint as Taoiseach.
As I write today’s column it remains 50/50 as to whether there will be a Brexit deal or not. I personally suspect there will be one, but that is more a guess than a shrewd piece of analysis.
Logic point to there being a deal. Afterall, a Free Trade Agreement is in both the EU and the UK’s interest, but since when was logic a strong feature of Brexit? Particularly since Boris Johnson took the reins.
If a deal emerges it will likely be prefaced with Johnson spuriously claiming that he forced the EU to give way on ‘dynamic alignment’ or, to give it its Tory spin name: “ratcheting”.
Put simply, ‘dynamic alignment’ means that the UK’s tariff free access to the EU single market, itself a major win by the British, relies on both sides maintaining a level playing field on standards.
This is achieved by the British agreeing not to fall below the rules and standards applying on the 1st of January 2021 and by both having a mechanism which retains that fair level playing field into the future, as circumstances and rules change in both the UK and EU.
The EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen explained it well at her press conference after this week’s EU Leaders’ Summit:
“It is only fair that competitors to our own enterprises face the same conditions on our own market… But, this is not to say that we would require the UK to follow us every time we decide to raise our level of ambition. For example in the environmental field. They would remain free. Sovereign, if you wish, to decide what they want to do. We would simply adapt the conditions for access to our market accordingly the decision of the United Kingdom, and this would apply vice versa.”
So, the provisions cut both ways, yet the British have shamelessly (by which I mean dishonestly) spun this as the EU trying to dictate to the British and forcing EU laws on the UK even after it has left the EU.
Boris Johnson’s government knows this is false portrayal because it knows what it already agreed to it in the 2019 Withdrawal Agreement, specifically on Page 14 of the Political Declaration:
XIV. LEVEL PLAYING FIELD FOR OPEN AND FAIR COMPETITION
- Given the Union and the United Kingdom’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitments to ensure a level playing field.
All that remained to be negotiated were the “…appropriate mechanisms to ensure effective implementation domestically, enforcement and dispute settlement”.
Instead of negotiating these arrangements we have had weeks of Johnson, Gove and Raab disingenuously asserting that “non regression” i.e. the U.K. not going below existing standards was sufficient, and that the ‘dynamic alignment’ sought by Michel Barnier on behalf of the EU27 and already agreed in principle, was just the French and others trying to scupper Brexit and keep the UK in the EU against its will.
The big takeaway for Dublin, Brussels, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast from all of this is that the U.K. has a government at Westminster which does not tell the truth, and which does not keep its word in negotiations. Worse still it has a government that masquerades as British but governs on behalf of England only – and not even all of that.
That is a dangerous situation. It will impact and influence the relationships on these islands and between these islands for the next decade, or more.
It his interview yesterday the Taoiseach Micheál Martin was more than fulsome in thanking the Johnson government, for agreeing the final elements of the Northern Ireland protocol on post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border, singling out the part played by Michael Gove in this as co- chair of the EU Joint Committee.
To say the Taoiseach was being diplomatic is a major understatement.
The main threat – indeed, the only real threat – to the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol came from Johnson’s government. It was Johnson who put provisions in the UK Internal Markets Bill that flagrantly breached international agreements, most notably the Good Friday Agreement. The NI Secretary Brandon Lewis MP acknowledged this at the time telling the House of Commons that “…yes, this does break international law in a very specific and limited way.”
While we can understand how diplomatic necessities require the Taoiseach to thank the Johnson government for withdrawing the threat which itself made, let us not pretend that its inclusion and removal was anything other than the act of a shameless and untrustworthy partner in negotiations. As the SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, said at the time: “Given the British government’s history we’re not surprised at their intent to break international law.”
Nobody, on these islands, in Europe or even further afield, can trust the Westminster government. Sadly, this reality is not just limited to the Johnson administration. The duplicity and mendacity Johnson has demonstrated could well succeed him for as long as there is a Tory component to any future British government.
No less a senior figure than the former Tory party chairman, Lord Chris Patten told the UK Independent at the weekend that he “fears” for Britain’s future, labelling Boris Johnson “an English nationalist” who has turned his back on traditions of standing up for the Union and international co-operation, adding:
“What we’re seeing is Boris Johnson on this runaway train of English exceptionalism and heaven knows where it is going to take us in the end,”
Johnson’s duplicity is no respecter of alliances or relationships. Even the DUP, must realise by now that they cannot trust Boris Johnson any more than Dublin or Brussels can trust him. Northern Ireland doesn’t matter to Boris Johnson Jacob Rees-Mogg, Michael Gove, just as neither Scotland nor Wales matters to them. The one nation Tory party of Macmillan, Heath, Major and Patten is dead and gone. Johnson’s Tory party is now the party of English nationalism and English exceptionalism.
Part of me almost (but not quite) hopes we end up no-deal, just to see England forced to endure the consequences of the lies propagated by Johnson and the other Brexiteers. But why cut your nose to spite your face? Yes, a no-deal Brexit would possibly accelerate the destabilization and break-up of the United Kingdom, but it increasingly seems that this destination is already set.
It is even debatable that a no deal would speed up it up by all that much. As I have said here several times already, the next big dynamic in the UK post Brexit will be that of Scotland moving ever closer to achieving Scottish independence.
There have been 15 consecutive opinion polls in Scotland showing clear majority support for independence, while Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP government at Holyrood is set to be comfortably re-elected next May.
The union of which Ireland is a key player is far from perfect, but it is stronger, and more supportive of its constituent member states than the union of which England still claims some leadership.
What happens in London, Edinburgh and Cardiff over the coming years will have profound consequences for what happens on this island. This is nothing to fear, especially if we recognise now that our relationships with Edinburgh and Cardiff will be based more on trust and mutual benefit than they will with London.