Accidents do happen
Eddie Ford suspects that Boris Johnson’s attempt to undermine the Brexit withdrawal agreement means he is gambling on a second-term Trump presidency
It was only to be expected that Boris Johnson’s Internal Market Bill would create a storm of controversy, given that it was designed to override key parts of the painstakingly negotiated Brexit withdrawal agreement. Of course, at the time the prime minister declared it and the now despised Northern Ireland protocol to be a “wonderful” triumph for British diplomacy - making many people wonder if he had ever read the agreement, or fully understood its implications.
Under the withdrawal agreement, Northern Ireland essentially stays within the European Union’s single market, including its state aid rules on domestic subsidies, and the bloc’s customs code will be enforced on goods crossing from Britain. In turn, this would require refundable tariffs to be paid on goods that are designated to be “at risk” of moving through the Six Counties statelet and on to the Republic of Ireland. In other words, you end up with a regulatory border down the Irish Sea, with the Six Counties left half inside the EU and half inside the UK - something that Theresa May famously said in parliament that no British prime minister could ever sign up to.
The Internal Market Bill and an upcoming finance bill, however, give ministers the power to limit the reach of the EU’s state aid laws, where they might go beyond Northern Ireland and impact on businesses in the rest of the UK (‘reach back’). Ministers would also be given the power to decide unilaterally what goods going from Britain to Northern Ireland would be judged to be “at risk” of moving into EU territory. Furthermore, the bill would additionally ensure that no export declarations were required for goods entering Britain from Northern Ireland - though exactly how that would be done is unclear. Not exactly clarifying the situation, Downing Street said it would only ask parliament to override parts of the Brexit agreement if the EU undermined the “fundamental purpose” of the Northern Ireland protocol - which sounds like doublespeak.
Naturally, “distressed and appalled”, the EU spat blood at the very idea of reneging on the withdrawal agreement. There was talk about taking the UK to the European court of justice and the EU has made plain that any new deal was conditional upon ‘respecting’ the previous version.
Perhaps most significantly of all, Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential candidate in the USA, weighed into the controversy. Almost Trump-like, he tweeted a week ago that “we can’t allow the Good Friday agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit” and emphasised that any trade deal between the US and UK “must be contingent upon respect for the agreement and preventing the return of a hard border - period”.
Biden was not alone in expressing American opposition to the Internal Market Bill, needless to say. Nancy Pelosi, the house speaker and leading Democrat, declared that if the UK violates its international agreements and undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be “absolutely no chance” of a UK-US free trade agreement passing Congress. This is a meaningful threat, as no trade deal can be signed, unless it is supported by two-thirds of Congress. A major pro-Irish lobby group, the Ad Hoc Committee to Protect the Good Friday Agreement, has vowed to build “a green wall” to defend the agreement, citing the arguments put forward by John Major and Tony Blair.
The US administration itself has expressed some unease at the prime minister’s proposals. In a Financial Times interview, Mick Mulvaney - Donald’s Trump special envoy to Northern Ireland since March - worried about a “border by accident” on the island of Ireland. He went on to say that he had discussed the Internal Market Bill with the Irish government and was “closely monitoring” the debate over it. Tensions are riding high everywhere.
When approaching this question, you have to ask yourself a number of questions, from the near trivial to the strategic. On the more trivial side is the fact that in the US some 33 million (10.1%) self-identify as Irish, compared with a population of 6.9 million in Ireland itself. But it is also true that if you look at many people born in Britain, they too have Irish descent. According to a 2001 study, one in four Britons claimed to have Irish heritage.1 You are forced to conclude that this is more about expressing a desire to be Irish, especially among young people. More soberly, the 2001 UK census later that year found 869,093 people born in Ireland are living in Britain and more than 10% of those born in the UK have at least one grandparent born in Ireland.
Anyway, for whatever reason, lots of people in the US like to think of themselves as having Irish heritage of some description. Biden himself is fifth-generation Irish-American and he frequently peppers his speeches with quotes from Irish poets. When he was vice-president under Barack Obama, he hosted successive Irish prime ministers during the St Patrick’s day festivities. But, these days, there is no longer a cohesive ‘Irish vote’ in the US. In fact, many claiming Irish descent have deserted the Democrats - since 2000 their votes have tended to go more to Republican candidates. However, by and large, Irish-Americans are that much prized and fought over species: the floating voter.
All this means that Joe Biden’s rhetoric over Brexit and the Good Friday agreement might purely be for electoral reasons. On the other hand, you should take several steps back. After all, what is sensible and rational about Boris Johnson going hell for leather for Brexit? Once again, you could say it is simply about the ruthless pursuit of office. With Johnson, you had someone so determined to become leader of the Tory Party and prime minister that he would say and do almost anything to get there. It is undoubtedly true that he is a Brexiteer by calculated choice rather than conviction or ideology. Everybody knows that when he was in David Cameron’s cabinet, it was only at the 11th hour that he declared himself to be a Brexiteer.
But if we look at things from a different perspective - a declining US hegemon and the role of Trump - then you get a different picture. One that makes sense for the US to increase the exploitation of its allies and disorganise a potential rival in the form of the EU (not that it looks particularly threatening at the moment). In which case, it makes a kind of sense for Johnson to think that Trump will win a second term and screw down on Germany, France and the project of ever closer union, and to position himself and global Britain as the US’s strongest and staunchest ally.
There again, is Joe Biden just talking about Ireland - or something bigger, such as observance of international law and the post-World War II international architecture? Unlike Donald Trump, perhaps Biden views the EU as more of an asset than a threat - the same going for Nato. If so, then maybe Johnson and the Tory government have made a monumental miscalculation in believing that Trumpism is the new normal and therefore requires some distancing from the EU. On the other hand, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic - with maybe others to come - are basically putting two fingers up to Brussels. Hence under the weight of its own bureaucratic inertia, the EU could start to disintegrate. Either way, these are the sort of questions that have to be asked.
Clearly, it does not particularly matter from the US strategic point of view whether the UK has a customs barrier down the Irish Sea or not. But in terms of the UK state itself, and internal domestic politics, it matters a lot - as we are now seeing. No-one knows how things are going to pan out with the Brexit negotiations. But, as things stand right now, with the deadline only weeks away, a deal is looking increasingly unlikely - though we all know about the EU’s history of cobbling together arrangements at the very last minute.
If there is no deal, then it is not just a question of a customs border down the middle of the Irish Sea - there will have to be a hard border on the island of Ireland itself. It is near impossible to envisage how there could be any other alternative if there is a hard Brexit. The UK will be trading under World Trade Organisation rules, while Ireland would still be bound by the EU’s free movement of capital and goods - requiring as a necessity border checks. Under those conditions, frictionless trade is impossible - surely.
If that does transpire, it would certainly intensify the national question in Ireland - which has never gone away, of course. Paradoxically though, when it comes to Scotland, things might go in the opposite direction. Nicola Sturgeon has tied the cause of independence to the ‘remain’ position, which has obviously benefited her electorally. Most people expect the Scottish National Party to get a majority in next year’s Holyrood elections - perhaps a landslide.
If and when that happens, this is tied in turn to the pledge to agitate and demand a second referendum - which is in the gift of Westminster, not a democratic right. But what is a referendum anyway? It is something both sides have to agree to and abide by, as it has no legal status, at least according to the UK constitution. If the referendum goes ahead and ‘leave’ wins, whilst there is also a no-deal Brexit, it will have to mean a hard border with the rest of the UK - most notably England, by far Scotland’s biggest trading partner. Yet the UK has a single economy after 300 years of capitalist development. To split that apart with WTO rules will not economically benefit Scotland. In fact, following independence, it could suffer a similar fate to Ireland, which fought a crippling tariff war with Britain in 1932. Ever since, Ireland’s major export has been people and the same could happen to Scotland, given a hard-Brexit Britain and a second-term Trump.
Under those circumstances, all things being equal, you would expect Scottish independence to lose the attraction it currently has. But things are not always equal, or rational. The inherently irrational side of nationalism could come to the forefront, with a stoking of English nationalism by the Tories - increasingly looking like a mere English nationalist party - and a corresponding stoking of anti-English nationalism in Scotland. Things can develop their own logic. In that scenario, there would no doubt be idiots on the left making out that a resurgent Scottish nationalism was somehow progressive or ‘anti-imperialist’.
But, returning to the original question - the rationale for Boris Johnson treating a no-deal Brexit as a “good outcome” for the UK - the project begins to makes sense if linked to a USA wanting to do down the EU.