Brexit trade deal on a knife-edge: lies and U-turns have destroyed trust

Graphic from Have I Got News for You that reads: After four and a half years, three prime ministers, 64 resignations and 3,498 U-turns, Boris Johnson flies to Brussels at the last possible monent to secure the 'easiest deal in history'.
Image credit: Have I Got News For You, 9 December 2020

Who in their right mind would deliberately do something to damage their country’s place in the world and make their people poorer? Yet that is precisely what no deal or a thin deal with the EU means. ‘Have I Got News For You’ has hit the nail on the head. With 31 December fast approaching, the UK still has no trade deal with the EU. It was all supposed to be so easy.

The EU is right not to trust the British government. False promises and outright lies about a trade deal have been dripped into the British public’s and EU’s ears by Brexiteers since 2016. Before the referendum, in April 2016, Michael Gove promised, “The day after we vote to leave, we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.” He also claimed that “no responsible government” would trigger Article 50 without a trade deal being in place with the EU, but nine months after the referendum, Theresa May did just that – without a trade deal on the horizon. In 2017, Liam Fox said that reaching a trade agreement with the EU “should be one of the easiest in human history”; it has proved anything but. Many of these promises have been quietly dropped in the intervening years, as the reality proved more difficult and ministers’ big claims came to nothing.

In October last year, a Withdrawal Agreement was finally reached with the EU, and Boris Johnson’s claim that he had an “oven-ready deal” helped to secure him a landslide victory in the December 2019 election. But it soon became clear that he never intended to keep to the deal, as Fintan O’Toole argued in a searing article: “It was not just that Brexit would not be ‘done’ when the Withdrawal Agreement was duly passed, it was that Cummings and Johnson intended all along to undo it.”

Breaking international law

O’Toole is referring to the biggest breach of trust so far: Boris Johnson’s plan to override parts of the Withdrawal Agreement through an Internal Market Bill. This caused an outrage in September because the proposals breached international law, the ministerial code and the Vienna convention, article 27 of which states: “A party may not invoke the provisions of its internal law as justification for its failure to perform a treaty.”

Minister Brandon Lewis claimed the bill, which addresses the Northern Ireland Protocol, would only breach international law in a “specific and very limited way”, as though this somehow excused the government. However, it gave rise to resignations and was strongly condemned by five previous prime ministers (Major, Blair, Brown, Cameron and May). Theresa May refused to back the bill, saying it would do “untold damage” to Britain’s global reputation. The EU said it had “seriously damaged trust” and started legal action against the UK. Hardly a positive atmosphere in which to conduct trade talks.

This issue has rumbled on for the past three months, clearly jeopardising any chance of reaching agreement with the EU by the end of the year. The bill has ping-ponged back and forth between the Lords and Commons; each time the Lords have removed the offending clauses which break the Withdrawal Agreement, only for Tory MPs to reinstate them in the Commons. On 7 December MPs voted yet again to reinsert the controversial clauses, on the same day the UK appeared to agree to remove them! Michael Gove reached an agreement with the European Commission vice-president Maroš Šefčovič, including post-Brexit arrangements for the Irish border, in return for dropping the offending clauses. You have to ask, though, why this U-turn was necessary if Johnson had not introduced the bill in the first place. Small wonder the EU has no faith in any of the UK government’s promises.

Sovereignty or little England?

At the heart of the Brexit debate lies the Brexiteers’ quest for sovereignty, yet this is based on a narrow and faulty understanding of what sovereignty actually means. As Irish diplomat Bobby McDonagh explains, the UK already has sovereignty – and always did have within the EU. Moreover, all EU states are sovereign, so why is the UK so unwilling to continue to work together with them? Not engaging in a trade deal with our nearest neighbours because of a misplaced sense of our own importance in the world will only reduce the UK’s global standing yet further, rather than enhancing it. The UK may ultimately break up as a result, and the outcome will indeed be little England.

Brexit has also always been rooted in Tory in-fighting, and Boris Johnson has been pulled between party and self-aggrandisement, aided and abetted by Cummings and Trump. Whether or not he really wants a deal, it looks increasingly like a case of too little too late. Talks between the prime minister and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen over dinner on 9 December ended in deadlock, and the EU has already published contingency plans in case trade talks fail. Meanwhile, whether or not a deal is reached, containers are already stacking up at Felixstowe, long queues are building up at Dover and Folkestone, food shortages and delays are expected in January, and prices will almost certainly rise.

In the midst of the Covid pandemic, Boris Johnson could have asked for an extension to the transition period in June, but he did not. His time in office may prove short-lived, but the British public and the UK as a whole will pay a tragic price for his arrogance and mendacity.

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