No one I know has a clue what the current row over last year’s Brexit withdrawal deal really means. All they see is another mess from a dysfunctional Downing Street.
One thing should be clear. The argument has nothing to do with the UK leaving the EU, which has already happened. It has to do with a different but related decision, Boris Johnson’s belief that the UK should also leave Europe’s single market, the lasting talisman of his “hard Brexit” bid to appear a macho Tory leader.
The UK leaving the single market had always carried a nightmare consequence, that of a hard border of some sort between northern and southern Ireland. Such a border would not just be near impossible to erect and unpopular across Ireland, it would be a gross breach of the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which pledged open trade.
To avoid this prospect, the 2019 Brexit withdrawal agreement was stuffed with fudge. It provided that if, by accident or design, a UK/EU trade deal were not reached this year, Northern Ireland’s trade within Ireland would default to the status quo. The region would remain in the EU single market. At the same time a soft border would regulate goods crossing the sea between Britain and Belfast to stop “leakage” into southern Ireland – pending some new arrangement.
Since no one could imagine no deal, this fudge was left in the oven. It is now baked to a cinder, as Johnson and his anti-European aide Dominic Cummings play tough with the EU. With no deal in the offing and hard borders in preparation on all sides, Downing Street has suddenly decided to reverse the Irish backstop. Its new “internal market” bill would pull Northern Ireland’s trade out of the single market. It would allow Johnson to end documentation on trade with Belfast, subsidise businesses and depress food standards to ease talks with new trade partners. It draws Belfast’s economy fiercely under centralised control in London. This not only requires a new hard border with the south, but also has infuriated Scotland and Wales by eroding economic devolution.
This U-turn is an explicit breaking of the treaty personally signed by Johnson a year ago, as his Northern Ireland secretary, Brandon Lewis, has brazenly conceded. This is no Tony Blair pretending his Iraq war was legal. To Johnson breaking the rule of law is somehow a boast. As for his pledge that he is “protecting” the Good Friday agreement, it must be called a lie.
The result of Johnson’s U-turn has already been condemnation by two former Tory prime ministers, Sir John Major and Theresa May, and the resignation of his two senior legal civil servants. The former Tory solicitor-general, Edward Garnier, has also called for the resignation of the attorney general, Suella Braverman. Contempt for treaties and the rule of law is not the British way.
Meanwhile in the real world the bill’s impact was instantly apparent. Its threat to end any standards equivalence between the UK and the EU has hit organic food producers. Since EU buyers cannot wait to see if Johnson’s bill is a bluff, they have just three months to find alternative suppliers. Reports are that this means an end to £225m of British organic exports to Europe.This story will be repeated a hundred times over.
There is a simple way for Johnson out of this mess. Stop posturing and tell his negotiator, David Frost, to reach a deal at once with the EU’s Michel Barnier at whatever cost. Britain has no leverage in this matter. As an offshore island of a larger trade zone it must accept the terms on offer. This is not a matter of national sovereignty: trade is about compromise, about money. Both sides have something to gain from free trade.
Insiders report that a deal on a modified customs union is still there if agreement can swiftly be reached on fishing, subsidies and standards regulation. On fishing the EU has hinted it will compromise, but on subsidies and standards Britain must. It is absurd that a Tory government should fight to make its export industries reliant on state aid. It is equally absurd that it should seek lower quality standards for its food and other goods than those enjoyed by the rest of Europe. A diplomatic intern should be able to fix this.
As the Financial Times points out, the government has published no impact assessment of no-deal Brexit since 2018. The cost was then estimated to be 7.7% loss of growth over 15 years. It must have soared since then. The prime minister boasts that Britain will “mightily prosper” from no deal, yet there is a glaring absence of facts or figures to support such a claim.
The United Kingdom currently presents an extraordinary image to the world. Much of the rest of Europe is returning to normal after the pandemic trauma. The rise in infections remains troubling but this could be a function of more widespread testing. Covid-related deaths have not spiked but declined to a level – in the UK as elsewhere – that could be considered handle-able. Few countries now consider a return to national lockdowns as remotely worth the economic cost.
Except Britain. Here the government is not just reviving lockdown’s curbs on social contacts, it is doing so at the very moment its furlough scheme is coming to an end and a surge in unemployment is certain. Yet the prime minister is about to deliver a devastating but avoidable hit to his battered economy, for reasons he is unable to articulate. This is not national sovereignty. It is national masochism.
• Simon Jenkins is a Guardian columnist