Brexit: Snake Eyes

It is hard to fathom how the EU and UK can extricate themselves from the Brexit mess that Boris Johnson has engineered, particularly given that EU leaders had lots of antipathy for Johnson even before he became Prime Minister. They seem more inclined to throw him an anchor rather than a bone.

For those of you who tuned out of this melodrama and missed the latest episode, the land border in Ireland was the Achilles heel of Brexit. The Good Friday Agreement is a tricky set of compromises and fudges that has been a tremendous success in practice. No one wants to touch this third rail except the ideologues in power in Great Britain. Even US Congresscritters have cleared their throats and said the UK can kiss its US trade deal goodbye if it messes with the GFA.

Yet Boris Johnson is proceeding to advance a bill through Parliament that would negate commitments he agreed to in the Withdrawal Agreement, the very same deal he touted as a great win for the UK when he pushed it through shortly after moving into No. 10. Johnson is blowing up the Ireland compromise he’d agreed to, of having Northern Ireland subject to EU restrictions on state aid, which for businesses that operated in Northern Ireland and Great Britain, would wind up applying to all of their UK activities. Johnson also wants to nix the Exit Declarations that Northern Ireland businesses would have to file for shipments into Great Britain. Johnson, when called out on the issue at the time of the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, handwaved them away as “light touch checks“.The Government admitted then it had no idea how much compliance would cost Northern Ireland businesses.

And in blowing up that arrangement, Johnson risks blowing up getting any sort of EU trade deal by year end. We are back to a Brexit Groundhog Day tape loop, a digitally enhanced version of the “no deal Brexit” scenario. And there has been so much talk of “hard Brexit” and crash-outs that the general public has become inured to what it might mean. Admittedly, with Covid having already killed air travel, that’s one sector out of the Brexit line of fire. But even with all of the extra prep time, there’s plenty of UK downside. Goldman not only argues that the hit would be much larger than for Covid, but that it would also be possible to identify the magnitude of botched Brexit damage. From CNBC:

The blow to the U.K. of failing to reach a trade deal with the European Union would be more costly than dealing with the coronavirus, Goldman Sachs economists have warned.

In fact, the investment bank said the fallout of a no-deal outcome was likely to be “two to three times larger” than that of “the worst pandemic witnessed in post-war history.”…

Some analysts have suggested that these costs would blend in with the hit to the U.K. economy from the global pandemic, making it difficult to determine what will be the real source of economic pain in the years to come. However, Goldman Sachs economists disagree.

“We are sceptical of the argument that the sheer scale of the economic fallout from Covid-19 will obscure the economic impact from a breakdown in Brexit negotiations,” they said in a research note Monday.

The investment bank argued that the industries hit hardest by the coronavirus — such as recreational, food and drink, and wholesale businesses — are different from the sectors mostly likely to be punished by the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, which include chemicals, textiles and electrical equipment businesses.

Mind you, negotiations had not been going well but the EU’s position was it was ready to talk up until the last possible minute, which in theory is sometime October but in practice is probably as late as mid-November. And it’s also assumed that the Government might swallow its pride and ask for a short technical extension if negotiations were in their final stages but not completed by year end (remember, despite regular UK press reporting, the EU can’t “grant” an extension).

But Johnson has done terrible damage to the interpersonal dynamics, which already weren’t great due to Johnson being so well known to them, in a bad way, not just as a major EU basher, but as utterly unprincipled. But as a head of state, EU leaders were forced to treat Johnson as a man of his word even though they suspected otherwise. Craig Murray pointed out that in October 2019, he wrote that Johnson was laying plans to break the Withdrawal Agreement:

There is currently considerable alarm in the FCO that Legal Advisers have been asked about the circumstances constituting force majeure which would justify the UK in breaking a EU Withdrawal Agreement in the future…. The situation that Johnson and Raab appear now to contemplate is agreeing a “backstop” now to get Brexit done, but then not implementing the agreed backstop when the time comes due to “force majeure”.

There are two major problems with this line of thinking. The first is that it will give unionists an incentive to foment disorder in order to justify breaking the backstop agreement – indeed there is a concern that might be the tacit understanding Johnson is reaching with the DUP…

The second problem is one of bad faith negotiation, and this is what is troubling the diplomats of the FCO. To negotiate an agreement with the secret intention of breaking it in future is a grossly immoral proceeding, and undermines the whole principle of good international relations. I should like to be able to say that I am sure this cannot be the intention. But when I look at Johnson, Raab and Cummings, I am really not so sure at all. It is possible that Johnson will succeed in the apparently insurmountable challenge of securing a deal all parties can agree, by the simple strategy of promising some parties he has no intention of honouring it.

As Murray adds in his current piece:

For Johnson, the Withdrawal Agreement provisions on Northern Ireland were only ever a device to get him over an immediate political difficulty….He had simply lied to the countries of the EU in signing a treaty he never had an intention to honour. He simply does not see himself as bound by any notion of honour or honesty.

The UK…is a rogue state. It is led by a man whose word cannot be trusted even when he signs a treaty. Other states do notice this kind of thing. Whether you are in favour of Brexit or against it, nobody can sensibly suggest this kind of gross insult to the European Union is a sensible way to start a future relationship.

Barnier made the (barely) face-saving argument to EU ambassadors that Covid may be partly responsible since the Government benefits by shifting the public eye to alleged external threats.

Barnier was also compelled to dismiss the Government’s hair-a-fire claim the EU was retaliating by threatening to block Great Britain food shipments to Northern Ireland. Richard North kneecapped that assertion:

A case in point, he [Barnier] says, the EU is not refusing to list Great Britain as a third country for food imports (SPS). To be listed, we need to know in full what a country’s rules are, including for imports, he says. The same objective process applies to all listed countries….

And yet, as I remarked on Saturday, we raised this listing problem four years ago and we should not now be in a position, with only months to go, where it is still unresolved…

The EU’s listing process is by no means automatic. It is a lengthy technical and administrative process, the top tier of a three-tier system comprising: (1) listing; (2) approval of establishments; (3) process controls and inspection at points of origin and subsequent processing. It is through this system that the EU ensures that exporting countries meet the standards for foods of animal origin set out in EU law….

[T]he outrage is vastly overcooked. Listing is a technical process and either the UK meets the requirements or it doesn’t. This isn’t even for Barnier to decide. It is decided by the EU’s Health and Food Audits and Analysis Office, located in Grange, Ireland, and the decision to list is made by the Commission in accordance with the criteria set out in Regulation (EC) No 854/2004.

Even less technically-minded commentators can see through the Johnson/Frost bluster. From Rafael Behr in the Guardian

By reneging on the terms of a treaty negotiated with those institutions, Johnson’s internal market bill inaugurates a new chapter in UK-EU relations. It dissolves the pragmatic foreign policy tradition in an acid bath of Europhobic paranoia. The prime minister justifies the bill’s repudiating clauses on the grounds that Brussels threatens the “territorial integrity” of the UK. He conjures the prospect of a “blockade” – vindictive obstruction of agricultural goods flowing from the rest of Britain to Northern Ireland. It is a depiction too twisted by mendacity to work even as a caricature of the facts.

North returned to the listing matter today, since the Government is still trying to depict itself as a victim, when it needs to go through a bureaucratic process just like any other third country:

I am still puzzled by the prime minister’s original claim that the UK Internal Market Bill was intended to “break the blockade”, so to speak, in the event that the EU does not grant third country listing to the UK.

This, as we know, is the first of a three-stage procedure required before the UK can export live animals or products of animal origin from Great Britain to EU Member States and – through the exigencies of the Irish Protocol – to Northern Ireland….

Third country listing is an administrative procedure, requiring an applicant country to conform with detailed requirements set out in EU law. In much the same manner as an applicant for a driving license has to comply with certain requirements – such as passing a driving test – the applicant country must “pass the tests” or it doesn’t get listed.

But in the same way that you would not suggest that someone not qualifying for a driving license was “banned” from driving – which is an altogether different process – there is no question of the UK being banned from exporting. Basically, by choosing not to comply with the requirements, we will have excluded ourselves from the EU market, and from exporting to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, The Sun is also using the same “ban” terminology…

Entirely reasonably, the EU is taking the view that unless the UK’s regimes comply with its statutory requirements – by the end of October – it will not list the UK. Indeed, it cannot. Under WTO anti-discrimination rules, it cannot treat the UK differently from any other third country.

Quite honestly, I can’t fathom why the UK thinks this sort of thing will cut any ice with the EU. EU leaders have written off the UK. They aren’t in the mood to spend more cycles on Brexit than they absolutely have to. They may be underweighting the damage they will suffer if the UK leaves with no trade deal. But the EU has also made clear there are certain tenets they won’t abandon, like the tradeoffs embedded in the so-called Barnier’s ladder. A more distant relationship from the EU means less advantaged trade access. There’s nothing hard to understand about this except even now, the UK refuses to understand it. And so we’ve had repeated displays of cakeism and pique.

The UK was already playing chicken with the EU. Pushing the accelerator harder, which is what the Government has done, does not change the fundamental nature of the game. There’s no reason to think the EU will be moved by the Government increasing its exit velocity. And having the Government behave in a fundamentally dishonest manner makes the EU even less inclined to respond to its tactics. Why reach a deal with someone who doesn’t respect agreements?

To change metaphors, most people become prisoners of their own character and habits. They can’t unbecome who they are. Johnson has never been trustworthy. He’s not committed to any position he takes, which is why some had a faint hope when he took office that he might ditch the Ultras.

But Johnson does appear to be wedded to his personal mythology of someone who can largely sidestep being tarred with bad outcomes via charm and deception. But there are too many eyes on him now for him to shape-shift as easily as he could in the past. And in this case, Peter Foster of the Financial Times, who broke the story of the so-called UK Internal Market Bill on the one hand said how it was drafted strongly suggested that it was not a gambit, even if there’s still ample delusion:

But even so, the EU is apparently in “This isn’t over till the fat lady signs” mode:

Back to Johnson. Even though they are very different characters, Johnson seems to hew to the “Chaos is a ladder” philosophy of Lord Petyr Baelish (Littlefinger) of the Game of Thrones. Both were skilled at deception: Littlefinger on an interpersonal basis, by his skillful use of information and ability to exploit insecurities and weaknesses, Johnson with broad public messaging via his energy, his charm, his lack of concern with truth and his speaking skills.

Littlefinger came to a bad end when his allies and sponsors worked out how he had deceived and preyed on them. Johnson’s Brexit promises will come crashing down unless he backs off from his confrontation with the EU. And while Johnson isn’t about to come to a medieval bloody end, it’s hard to see how he can escape responsibility if he persists in his current course.

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  1. vlade

    I’ll point out that the last time (that I can think of) that a major power in Europe signed a major multilateral treaty with bad faith was the Munich agreement in 1938.

    I’m excluding Molotov-Ribbentrop, as there both parties signed in bad faith, and it wasn’t a multilateral treaty.

    1. ambrit

      I would append to that the Yalta Agreement of 1945, which agreement was signed with bad faith by all concerned.

      1. vlade

        I excluded the tripartity ones by saying “Europe”. There’s a good reason to believe that Postdam, Yalta and Teheran (probably the least of them) were all variedly bad-faith dealing.

      2. Harry

        Was Yalta really signed in bad faith by all parties? I got the impression that Stalin and Roosevelt got on very well. It was Churchill & Stalin who got on badly. And didnt all parties honor their agreements in the first few years after the war?

        1. vlade

          One word – Poland. West was asking for “free elections”, knowing the chance of that is about nil. Stalin promised it, knowing it would be anything but.

          Both parties knew that what they agreed on (in respect of Poland) are but words, and so did the London Poles, who got thrown under the bus. TBH, the language on Poland was so vague that “Stalin woud be able to stretch it all the way from Moscow to Washington w/o breaking it”, as someone wrote at the time. So you could argue it wasn’t really bad faith.

          More generically, the agreement was to “to create democratic institutions of their own choice”. That arguably happened only in Czechoslovakia, where the Communist party won the elections (well, they won it in the Czech part, not the Slovak part, but the Czech part was considerably larger, so overall they won fair and square). The other countries had more or less coups in taking over the government. Again, it was not unexpected by the parties to the agreement.

          1. rkka

            “ One word – Poland. West was asking for “free elections”, knowing the chance of that is about nil. Stalin promised it, knowing it would be anything but.”

            Poland had a chance in August ‘39 to be part of a victorious coalition in a fairly short war, when British & French officers who were part of the Anglo-French-Soviet military staff talks then going in Moscow visited Warsaw. On 16 August ‘39, the Deputy Chiefs of Staff of the British armed forces predicted that a Polish refusal to do so would cause the Staff talks to collapse, and predicted a Soviet-German division of Eastern Europe as the most likely consequence of that collapse. They also predicted that there would be little chance of Poland emerging from a long war in anything like its prewar form.

            Decisions have consequences.

            1. vlade

              The Soviet-British-French talks collapsed when
              a) Soviets found that the representtives of the UK had no mandate to negotiate, only to “explore”, but all important decision still had to be oked by London (which was different with the French negotiator, who had full powers to negotiate).
              b) Soviets found that the UK could put into the field only a couple trained and armed divisions, which was nothing on the scale of things. Yes, the UK had a formidable (for 1930s) navy, but it was spread around the world, and the USSR was looking at it via the lenses of land war in Europe, where they judged that the UK could not do much.

              French were actually pretty keen on this alliance, but followed – as in the Munich agreement – lead of the UK.

      1. Neil Avent

        I’m a brit in the UK and I dont get it. From speaking to people who still think Boris will get us a good brexit the consensus I’m getting is they think Boris is clever but appears clumsy and dumb to fool people. Challenging that with “everyone says that so its not really a disguise” I’ve had replies such as “its worked to get him where he is”. So we have a wolf in sheeps clothing who will ruthlessly get us a good deal. I am really worried that Brexit will go awfully wrong, my business has survived covid, but I’ve seen and known a lot of people who have suffered. Brexit feels like it has a serious chance of stamping out any sense of business improving and getting back to normal.

        1. Eustache de Saint Pierre

          I as a Brit don’t understand his appeal either, but perhaps it is similar to the appeal of Brexit for many, in as much as in the case of both B’s facts don’t matter or are ignored & in any case are no match for their emotional response.

          Out & about talking to some hard pushed small business owners here in Northern Ireland over the last couple of days, who informed me of the Border issue & whose emotional response was the exact opposite of those above.

          Thanks for this post as I was hoping there would be one when I returned so that I could make some sense of it all. I sometimes wonder where my head would be without this American source for British News.

      2. Harry

        Im told that its a public persona that he has been cultivating for years. Actually he is a rather clever, very calculating fellow. Its true that he doesn’t like detail for details sake. But he is no dunce.

        The problem is that a classically educated Old Etonian is not a popular cliche in the UK. However a jolly old “fogey” who like his girls, his beer and his food, is a very popular cliche. My sister told me he was very charming when she met him (correctly identifying the classical root of our family name). But civil service pals tell me he is a horrible man who has no sense of honor or public service. You should expect disaster, because there is no responsible adult at the helm.

        1. EoH

          Boris’s reputation is that he’s so clever, he can drink and play stud instead of study. So he does. He casually dismisses questions about how many children he’s fathered, leaving the impression he neither knows nor cares. His mythology is that he’s such a lovable rogue, his partners don’t care either.

          His press patrons seem to have agreed, in that they subsidized his so-called journalism from Brussels without inquiring too much into the accuracy of his work. Presumably, it was because he held to their anti-EU party line. Former colleagues suggest he wrote much of his work on the fly, while imbibing anti-hangover juice and making up what he needed along the way – including quotes from his own relatives.

          Now, instead of his sister, Boris has Dominic Cummings doing much of his homework. But why does he get away with it? Because we’d all like to be that lucky doesn’t quite answer it. I think it’s because, in his Old Etonian way, he firmly believes he’s entitled to it. So, people laugh, lift their hat, and tug at their forelock, not noticing how the water is swirling around their ankles and down the drain.

      3. SOMK

        Time and time again people who volunteered for the Labour Party around the election said that Corbyn was a consistent issue on the doorstep which seems extraordinary given his opponent was someone whose Wikipedia page lists an indeterminate number of children. I suppose he plays up to a certain self image the British media is happy to play along with and a sufficient mass of people are broadly happy to swallow, he’s the equivalent of a parent making airplane noises with an ordinarily undesirable food substance, only in this case the undesirable food is more akin to something the cat threw up than anything healthy.

      4. skk

        He fits the “lovable rogue” mould, a character highly favoured in Brit sitcoms: Arthur Daley in “Minder”, Ronnie Barker in Porridge, James Bolan in the “Likely Lads”.
        One’s instinctive sense is formed by that. But when he morphs into cad, an adjacent category, its all over.

      5. m-ga

        I’m British. First time I saw Johnson on TV was after the 2001 general election. Labour had won in a landslide, the second for Blair.

        Johnson was effusive. Made a joke about the Conservative party being similar to the human liver, in its qualities of resilience. It was obvious even then that Johnson was destined for the top.

        The appeal is incredibly difficult to explain. What Johnson seems to do is blend class sensibilities. He’s from a family rich enough to mix with aristocracy, but who are not aristocrats themselves. The charm is that he seems to mock that sensibility by not adhering to any of their rules (e.g. on personal grooming, use of language or respect for authority). Everyone goes wild for it ??‍♂️

        Now that he has power, Johnson seems untouchable. Even the incompetence washes right off him. People think it’s funny. There’s an overlap with the kids at school who don’t bother to study. It seems “cool” to not know the answers. That’s Johnson.

        If you push people really hard, they’ll say “oh, but he’s so clever”. And Johnson plays to this with occasional bad recitals of Latin, and so on. He’s a debating star if you don’t know what the debate is about.

        It seems likely the entire “New Tory” project would unravel in weeks without Johnson (e.g. if it’s just Cummings and Gove). Best chance for the UK is that the challengers don’t realise that, and remove Johnson. Once he’s gone, something like normal service might resume. But if he stays in power for the next 10–15 years (as seems likely, with Johnson increasingly in a figurehead position and spending his actual time in tennis clubs and at gala dinners) the UK, should it still exist, would be so hollowed out there’s little service left to resume.

      6. drumlin woodchuckles

        Does Johnson come off as a lovable rogue to Brits in general, or only to the English? And if only to the English . . . to all the English, or only to certain economic classes and / or certain social style-and-lifestyle classes?

        1. Milgrim

          Does Johnson come off as a lovable rogue to Brits in general, or only to the English?

          There’s not much love for Johnson here in Scotland. Rather, contempt and loathing.

      7. Count Zero

        No I can’t explain. There’s nothing charming or lovable about him. He comes across to me as a rambling incoherent chancer, a cut-price Winston Churchill tribute band, a fat posh public-school boy who never grew up, a cold vacuous lying two-faced evil little right-wing bastard. But then I may be biased.

    1. vlade

      He seems like a guy you’d like to go to a pub for a beer with (if you’re male). Which makes him more relatable (even if reality he’s a toff and elitist) – and, a lot of people assume that if they can relate, the other party does to.

      1. philnc

        He’s also the guy who would get drunk and say something offensive to the biggest tough in the bar and start a chain reaction brawl that ends with you on the street outside, where he walks up, unscathed, because he bailed as soon as fists started flying. In that way Johnson’s almost a mirror image of Trump, former bad boys who could always count on somebody else paying the tab. If the UK and US are rogue states, it’s because their people tolerate being led by rogues. How long that will last is anyone’s guess, but it’s clearly not changing any time soon because it has been baked into the system from the start.

      2. Basil Pesto

        He has that Trumpish quality of appearing to “call it like he sees it”. Even if what he has to say is wretched (picaninny smiles, etc). I think, though, that this is more true for Trump* than it is for Johnson, who as pointed out above may well be cultivating a persona, and who probably fancies himself as cunning as a shithouse rat (whether he actually is or not, it seems unlikely on the evidence)

        *even then, the Woodward interview where he said he didn’t want to start a panic by saying publicly how serious SARS-CoV-2 is, shows a level of political awareness and calculation not often ascribed to him, including by myself

      1. Alex Cox

        Exactly. Thatcher was widely hated in Britain but you wouldn’t know that if you read the Mail, the Telegraph or the Murdoch press.

        Similarly, in the US, many people detested Reagan. No one who was on the receiving end of “trickle down” liked the guy. But the media told us, repeatedly, that he was the beloved great communicator.

        Over the years the lies about Thatcher and Reagan’s popularity stuck, at least in MSM circles. Now we see the same process being applied to Blair and W.

    2. Synoia

      It’s a trade mark of Sociopaths.

      The French phrase “Perfidious Albion” summaries this very English behavior.

      From Wikipedia:

      “Perfidious Albion” is a pejorative phrase used within the context of international relations diplomacy to refer to alleged acts of diplomatic sleights, duplicity, treachery and hence infidelity (with respect to perceived promises made to or alliances formed with other nation states) by monarchs or governments of the UK (or England prior to 1707) in their pursuit of self-interest.

    3. Schofield

      The secret to Johnson is that he believes his own shallow platitudes along with a significant number of voters. Nothing magical going on at all just dross!

  2. vlade

    Re your last para – unfortunately, at least in the eyes of a lot of the UK voters, he can happily escape any responsibility, as a non-trivial number of them are getting the information from such a great sources like Daily Mail, Daily Express, Telegraph etc. All of which will write anything necessary to make sure the readers understand it’s all EU’s fault that the UK doesn’t get what it wants (and is entitled to).

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The level of reporting of this in the UK is dismal, even by the usual standards. Outside of Scotland, I doubt very many people outside the usual chattering classes really understand the implications of what has been done. Which is of course, what Cummings (I strongly suspect he is the author of this policy) is reckoning on. He believes in creating chaos and taking advantage of the confusion – I doubt there is any deeper strategic thinking going on than this. They know they have a very weak hand, so chaos helps. And when the voting public only have a vague idea of what it really means, then they don’t necessarily suffer from it. I don’t doubt for a moment that if and when a hard Brexit really hits ordinary people that the Tories will manage to pass the blame on

      1. ambrit

        Over here in the Colonies, we do not hear about any Labour Ultras. Are there any and would they be making plans to skewer, perhaps literally, the Tories when the true dimensions of the damage to the UK Body Public become known?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          The Labour Ultras are too busy skewering each other.

          The Left has retired to lick its wounds, and the rest are just hoping that the current leadership knows what its doing and isn’t as right wing as it seems. The official policy – I can stand corrected here – seems to be that there is no point giving hostages to fortune with an election more than 4 years away. In other words, they won’t do anything but try to make Starmer look suitably prime ministerial at every opportunity. This means in reality not doing anything that makes them look unpatriotic.

          The big ‘unsaid’ right now in UK politics is Scotland. With a hard Brexit, Scottish independence is back on the agenda, and this is as destructive to Labour and the left as it is to the Tories. I don’t honestly think that Labour (left or right) have any idea what to do about this except bleat occasionally about how horrible the SNP are.

          1. paul

            It might be back on the agenda for the population, but not on that of the current SNP leadership who, with their squalid fit ups and national executive shenanigans, seem only interested in in remaining the largest fish in the westminster catch net.

            The UK internal market bill is pretty wild, basically an all encompassing enabling bill.

      2. vidimi

        what advantage can he take from it, though? at some point, reality will catch up to the optics. you can rally the public on your side by playing the victim all you want, but when you exit without a trade deal and the standard of living goes down 20%, what is the benefit?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Thats an interesting question.

          I think one answer is that Johnson doesn’t really have a strategy, he’s just riding a wave. He caught the Brexit wave to the summit and now has no choice but to keep on the board for as long as he can. At some level he may really wish he could change course, but he doesn’t have the skill or authority do so, so he is just spoofing as he goes, hoping something turns up.

          The other side of course is that Johnson may at some level share the view of the hard liners that a hard Brexit is a genuinely good thing. There are many people at a high level who genuinely believe that it will cause just a few months of havoc (mostly just affecting people they don’t know or care about), and after that a new, sleek and modern England (they don’t care about the fringes) will emerge, a Singapore on steroids. They see the short term chaos as a necessary cleansing. I don’t think the likes of Cummings are spoofers like Johnson – they genuinely believe in their own propaganda and are absolutely sure of their vision. The fact that it has no real bearing with the real world of modern trade and economics isn’t really relevant.

    2. John Beech

      It helps too, that Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Express, The Irish Times, The Guardian, et al are offered online freely, or relatively so, whilst others like The Sun and Financial Times paywall like crazy.

      An American working to integrate UK news, whence it’s most readily available.

  3. Clive

    Barnier’s legalistic finessing on food importation from GB to Northern Ireland isn’t going to cut it here.

    While it is entirely correct, as a matter of law, to say that if the EU is unable to list the U.K. as a third country, this would automatically preclude U.K. agricultural imports to the EU, this doesn’t answer the specific question about whether, in that eventuality, the EU would extend the ban to U.K (NI).

    We can’t know whether, or if, Barnier made references to this in negotiations and, if he did, how it was framed. But if there was any hint that this would ever be a realistic possibility, Barnier blew big time. It is crass in the extreme to threaten anyone on the Island of Ireland with food security problems, given the history of the place. Barnier should have explicitly ruled it out and said that, no matter what, food imports could continue from the GB mainland to the province.

    If he even refused to give an explicit guarantee that would be bad enough. If he dangled the possibility that it could happen as a negotiation ploy, that’s worse.

    Yes, technically and legally the EU can prevent not-to-EU-standard live animals and PoAOs being sent to NI from GB. Politically, however, that was never going to be an option. Even legally, it would be hard to see how it wouldn’t trigger the “social unrest” cancellation clause in the Irish Protocol. So why didn’t Barnier say it was never going to be a happening event? Why do we now see this parroting of legal texts?

    If Barnier failed to appreciate the difference between the two things — what is legally permissible and what is politically implementable — he’s an idiot. By refusing to take the option off the table to restrict food imports to NI, Barnier left few avenues open to the U.K. government. What could have been finesse-able outside strict adherence to legal texts became something that had to be prevented in a redrawing of U.K. domestic legislation. Perhaps Barnier thought the U.K. government wouldn’t go that far. He was obviously wrong.

    Having got a taste, now, for rewriting the Irish Protocol, there’s little, in terms of U.K. domestic politics, to prevent further tweaking of particularly unpalatable aspects. The EU can have either a fudged regulatory border down the Irish Sea or it can impose a border North/South on the island of Ireland and decide how much fudge, if any, it is willing to put up with there. It can’t have a fudge-free East/West regulatory border. It was deluding itself if it ever thought that was possible.

    1. vlade

      I’ll repeat what I wrote elsewhere. The NI protocol was agreed, and signed off by Johnson. In fact, let us remember the NI protocol got included by Johnson, as May refused to sign it like this, as she understood what it would mean (if she honoured it, which she would).

      That allowed Johnson to presente it as his great victory, oven-ready deal, and, undoubtedly, all of this helped Johnson to win the elections a year ago, on votes of people who have had enough of Brexit, either way.

      If you sign a dumb contract, even asking for the dumb parts of it, it’s not the other’s party problem.

      If you sign it in a knowledge you’re going to break it, it’s bad faith dealing to start with, and no amount of “but it has dumb clauses” tap dancing is going to change that for your international audiences. You’d have negotiated the clauses at the time.

      Germany’s breaking the Munich agreement in slightly over half a year was what finally persuaded the Europe it was a bad faith-actor, and directly lead to the UK/French guarantee of Poland that was honoured, when Germany assumed it wouldn’t (on the past behaviour).

      I’ll also add that definitely the food stuff (although not the aid) was to pass if there was a trade deal, even a rather bare-bones, on the horizon. Fisheries tend to be sold as a big deal, but I suspect that if the state-aid thing was solvable – which the UK is not interested in, because with its own state aid it can build its own unicorn-breeding grounds, although I’m curious to see how’s that going to pan out except shovelling more money Cumming’s friend’s way – some compromise on fisheries could be found.

      1. Clive

        If you sign a dumb contract then you can try to make the best of it — sometimes even the not-so-wonderful parts of it can be lived with because, overall, you still get some benefits. But if you find that, despite any attempt to retrade the deal, you meet unacceptable losses, you default.

        Threatening Northern Ireland’s food security — with no legal protection for the U.K. government or, more importantly, civil servants and public bodies if they had to put in place countermeasures and the possibility the U.K. Supreme Court could actually force the imposition of a U.K. food export ban to NI — is just such an unacceptable loss.

        I’m amazed the EU ever thought the U.K. government would flagellate itself on the altar of legalistic purity and the sanctity of contracts. Especially one led by Johnson. I’m only surprised that they’re surprised he’s an out-and-out rogue. And haven’t the EU heard of counterparty risk?

        1. Redlife2017

          Your argument only works if the initial contract wasn’t actually signed in bad faith. As per Craig Murray – they have been looking for ways to break this since before they signed in 2019. They knew what it would do. People objected at the time that this was a WORSE deal then the one he had torpedoed May’s government over. So its a bit rich for Johnson to say that somehow woe is me the evil Europeans got one over on me?

          And counterparty risk on an international treaty under the Geneva Convention? That will be news to every single diplomatic corps in the world. This is sovereign to sovereign treaty making where there is no overarching world government to enforce (by FORCE) legal agreements- unlike in business to business contracts where you have the literal force of law with a sovereign government’s oversight. Good faith is what drives the international system of laws and treaties. It’s actually very old school when you think about it. When I went to university studying international law, the base assumption of good faith for treaties was much like the assumption that diplomats are not murdered in their host countries (i.e. it happens, but rarely and not without serious international fallout). So for the UK to do what it is doing will not just impact its relationship with the EU, but also multiple other sovereign entities outside of trade agreements.

        2. vlade

          I’ll say again -the dumb clause was included on the UK’s insistence. A competnent, good faith actor, would have looked at this before. If I remember it right, the NI clause was very much close to what May turned down, so it’s not like the analysis of this wasn’t done before Johnson took power.

          And counterparty risk is not usually expected when you give the party exactly what the asked for, and which is, for a long time, used by the counterparty as “excellent, oven ready, deal”.

          1. Clive

            Anyone who looked at Boris Johnson and thought to themselves “that’s fine, no counterparty risk, that’s all good, his word is his bond” seriously needs their head examining. Even my mother-in-law knows he’s a no good double-crossing liar, philanderer and all round reprobate and refused to vote for him, breaking a lifetime pattern of Tory voting.

            And Merkel, Macron, Varadkar, Barnier and the rest of them (all seasoned operators and well versed in the greasy pole of politics) fell for it? Oh, puh-leese…

            1. vlade

              If your argument is that the EU should not have signed anythign, because the UK was going to deal with bad faith, what would have made it the EU – w/o the proof that the UK was dealing in bad faith?

              1. Clive

                For the U.K. government, refusing to take the threat to NI food security off the table is bad faith.

                It all boils down to politics. Which is why Remain’ers like Craig Murray and quasi-Remain’ers like Richard North faffing about with bits of paper (metaphorically speaking, if they’re talking about the Withdrawal Agreement and similar), what they say and what they don’t say, what they mean and what they don’t mean, miss the point entirely.

                1. vlade

                  Of course it always boils down to politics. Which is why the EU will _always_ look first and foremost to its own interests. Will it play dirty when it can get away with it, and use whatever leverage it can? Sure it will.

                  But the UK play right now is towards its domestics politics – you do not win any friends (except maybe for Trump), by _visibly_ doing away with stuff like this, while the EU plays both to domestic and international scene.

                  Ultimately, it can even throw its hands up, and say we tried, but with a serial lier like Johnson… And there will be a hard border in the island of Ireland, and because it’s extremely unlikely it will improve NI’s economic situation, the NI will move towards unification.

                  1. vlade

                    Which tells you that Johnson gives f*ck about NI, and is really only using it as a precursor to pick a fight with the EU for his internal domestic purposes (because if he wants only a no-deal, he can get a no-deal tomorrow, w/o alll that NI stuff).

                    1. Clive

                      If Johnson wanted a no-Deal it would be far easier to go about it by doing exactly that.

                      But the Irish Protocol is in both the U.K. and EU’s interests regardless of whether there is a Deal or not.

                      What Johnson is doing is trying to hang onto the Irish Protocol but have sufficient U.K. domestic legal provisions so that if, in extremeis, a U.K. government has to put U.K. interests above EU ones, it can do that without being overridden by the U.K. domestic courts.

                      The irony is, for all the talk about how Johnson doesn’t want a Deal, his actions have shown he wants to try to hang onto the Irish Protocol at least. But what he doesn’t want is the EU using the provisions of the Irish Protocol as leverage in the negotiations for a Deal.

                      Like it or not, that’s what he’s achieved. There’s been some, perhaps a lot, of cost in achieving that. But, as we say up north, you don’t get ‘owt for nout.

                2. vlade

                  Also, the WA NI protocol has a dispute mechanism, including NI Assembly part. Johnson didn’t even bother to put in his IMB that the provisions will be triggered _if_ the dispute mechanism fails, including a vote in NI assembly.

                  So any arguments on “food security” or whatever are really void – the things is blantantly a bad faith move with anything else being just excuses.

                  1. Clive

                    The U.K. government’s interpretation is that what happens in the U.K. internal market is nothing to do with the Irish Protocol. Goods in circulation in the U.K. internal market are no concern of the EU’s unless they enter the EU Single Market. It is Treaty-creep to even infer that a matter of internal U.K. market goods to be consumed by consumers in the U.K. internal market should ever be somehow subsumed into the terms of the Irish Protocol or its dispute resolution mechanisms.

                    Where there is a boundary condition or grey area in the U.K. internal market’s interface to the EU Single Market, it is the U.K. government which gets to determine if it is a joint matter or if it is a matter solely for the U.K. — that’s as the U.K. government is now telling it, anyway.

                    Again, if the EU doesn’t like the U.K. government’s new interpretation, it can declare the Withdrawal Agreement dead and buried.

                    1. d

                      so then the only way for the EU to protect its internal market is a hard border between NI and the ROI? there is no other choice is there?

                3. c_heale

                  Richard North is definitely not a remainer. To call him a quasi-remainer is disingenuous.

                  And I can see many fascistic elements in Brexit. Johnson likes act like he is similar to Churchill. He has more personality traits in common with Hitler than Churchill.

                  1. Clive

                    North proposed EEA\EFTA membership, which is in the parlance of the potential options for Brexit usually (in a derogatory way) characterised as “Brexit in Name Only”. Leaving the EU without leaving the key institutions of the EU is not really leaving. It’s not remaining in the EU either, which is why I felt it fair to add the “quasi-” qualifier.

                    As for bandying about labels, I always look askance when a political grouping (Remain) decides that — after losing a referendum in 2016, having a general election in 2017 where the second referendum party (the Liberal Democrats) got not huge support and the other parties, Labour and the Conservatives, stood on Leave platforms were neck and neck then all followed by the 2019 election when the Leave party (Conservatives) got what can reasonably be called a landslide victory (compared with the bet-hedging Labour Party who got their butts kicked by the voters but not as badly as the out-and-out Remain party, the Liberal Democrats who were practically wiped out) — after receiving these multiple snubs by the voters that that’s some sort of fascism.

                    You cannot lazily call “people who don’t agree with me” fascists, just because they don’t agree with you. Or, you can, but it’s some way short of a compelling argument.

                    If anything’s fascististic, it’s a political interest group refusing to take “no” for an answer.

                    1. Anonymous2

                      North advocated a ‘soft Brexit ‘ as a first step to a gradual and complete disentanglement from all EU institutions. Your comments are not reporting his position accurately.

                    2. Clive

                      Okay, Richard North is a can-kicking Leave’er. “a first step to a gradual and complete disentanglement from all EU institutions” without any semblance of how you’d ever get from A to B and why the long, drawn out getting from A to B is going to be any better than the current attempts to get from A to B is a handwave.

                      And even, if I may term it such, the “quickie” Brexit we have has taken four years + already. What North vaguely proposes is inherently a “not necessarily in my lifetime” set of timescales.

                      And did North not mention that the EEA/EFTA countries said no way did they want the UK cuckolding into their (more-or-less settled and happy) grouping?

                      Making something X contingent on something else Y that’s not going to happen makes the original something X a nah-gonna-happen event.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Seriously Clive, you are going way off the reservation with this argument. There is no way Barnier made any such threats, implicitly or explicitly, it would have been vetoed by any Irish government representatives, and Barnier is well aware of the sensitivities. As Yves has pointed out, this is entirely a technical and administrative matter, and the EU was entitled to point out the difficulties. The Irish government (along with numerous bloggers including North) has been pointing out the difficulties for years. There is not an iota of evidence that Johnson or anyone else was responding to provocation.

      As Craig Murray has long been pointing out, this has always been the plan, the issue of food imports is simply an excuse. Any difficulties in the negotiations are entirely of the UK’s making, to pretend otherwise is, quite simply, nonsense. I have no idea what specific motivation Johnson has for choosing to do this now, but it is most likely intended solely for domestic consumption, to try to put the blame of the EU for any failure. Nobody outside the boundaries of the UK believes this nonsense for a second.

      1. Clive

        If he didn’t make any overt threats and didn’t want to have any possibility anyone else might make threats or even risk it poisinging the atmosphere, he could simply have said that in no circumstances would the EU take any action which led to the U.K. government having to restrict food imports to NI.

        Not only did Barnier not say that, he’s subsequently doubled-down with the repetition of the interpretation of the legal position. If Barnier wants to remove the incendiary issue of food security for NI entirely from the framing, he can do that if he wishes.

        If he continues to not do so and thus leave open the possibility that it could, unless something changes, happen, then he can’t blame the U.K. government for taking steps to make sure it can’t happen.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          So he might, maybe, somehow have said something. You have no evidence for this. On the contrary, had he done so he would have been shot down by Irish representatives at the table. They didn’t, because he didn’t say anything of the sort. He has simply stated the legal position which is…. stating the legal position. How shocking. The only ones threatening food security on the Island of Ireland are Tory politicians. Every single person north and south of the border, including the DUP know that.

          The notion that somehow Johnson is justifiably reacting to provocation is ridiculous. There is zero evidence of this, none whatsoever. All evidence is that this was pre-planned, as Murray had argued at the time. Even I thought at the time he was overstating his case, I didn’t think Johnson would be allowed break the agreement, but he’s been proven right.

          1. Clive

            Then the entire nefarious Conservative plot could have been exposed and undermined as easy as 1-2-3: Barnier can say in whatever form of words he likes that the EU will never take any action which could impede the free flow of food from GB to NI.

            But he hasn’t.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              He hasn’t said that, because he can’t, for reasons Yves pointed out. Its not within his powers to say that. Why on earth should he rule something out that isn’t within his authority or power to rule out?

              This isn’t a negotiating weapon, its a simple matter of how the regulations operate. As Yves pointed out in the article, its like complaining about not being allowed to drive when you haven’t applied for a driving license.

            2. Robert Dudek

              I just hope it’s a no deal. It will come as a shock to No 10. They really think this kind of brinkmanship is going to work.

          2. EoH

            The notion that somehow Johnson is justifiably reacting to provocation is ridiculous. There is zero evidence of this, none whatsoever. All evidence is that this was pre-planned, as Murray had argued at the time. Even I thought at the time he was overstating his case, I didn’t think Johnson would be allowed break the agreement, but he’s been proven right.

            I think that’s exactly right. Boris Johnson’s “good faith” is about as long lasting as a burp. Like Trump, what he wants, besides being taken care of, is as whimsical and as changeable as English weather.

        2. Yves Smith Post author

          Barnier has NOTHING TO DO with the listing process! It is entirely outside the negotiations.

          It’s a bureaucratic exercise and the UK has to go through the hoops just like any other third party. Why are you acting like this is EU punishment when it is in fact the UK acting like a prima donna and it didn’t have to satisfy the requirements that every other third party has to? The EU has to treat the UK just the same as everyone else under WTO rules.

          Honestly, all the EU has said (again) is “What about Brexit don’t you understand?”

          1. Clive

            Yes, it (the listing process) is indeed outside the Brexit process.

            It’s entirely up to the U.K. government whether it seeks a listing, or not.

            So why doesn’t Barnier, for the avoidance of doubt, state that there is nothing in the U.K.’s listing as a third country, or not, which has any bearing on GB food exports to NI? Then, the whole matter is settled.

            Of course, this is the nub of the whole predicament.

            Barnier wants to be able to say that if one piece of chlorinated chicken ends up at a Belfast kebab shop (or more serious violations of EU food standards), the EU must be able to impose restrictions up to and including potentially a total ban on U.K. food imports into NI. But that is never going to be something the U.K. government would do. So the U.K. government is, entirely correctly, telling the EU that fact — and codifying that in U.K. domestic legislation.

            If the EU doesn’t like it, it can of course reconsider its options.

            1. BlakeFelix

              If the EU lets GB sell whatever in NI, then it would need a border with the rest of Ireland to stop non EU permitted goods from entering the EU, it seems to me. If they guaranteed no border controls, they would lose control over their imports, which seems bananas to me. If the UK decides to unilaterally trash the good Friday agreement, we’ll see how long they can hold NI, against the EU. Scotland is looking pretty iffy too… And it isn’t like I am a huge EU fan, but put them in a room with Trump and Johnson and they kind of start looking like the grown ups…

              1. Clive

                A hard regulatory and customs border East to West is just as much a violation of the Good Friday Agreement as a hard regulatory and customs border North to South — if anything in terms of regulatory or customs borders between Northern Ireland and either the Republic or the U.K. are anything to do with the Good Friday Agreement — it refers to neither, only a “security boarder”.

                Unionism’s views and concerns are just as valid and just as much in need of accommodation as Nationalism’s.

                And talking, since you’ve brought it up, about a United Ireland, what are unionists supposed to take away from the current Brexit impasse? Unionists have already compromised significantly in accepting a different regulatory regime in the six counties. This was done in a spirit of give-and-take, sensitivity of implementation rather than a black-and-white lawyerly parsing and a partnership where no one is interested in gaining the upper hand, once the ink is dry.

                So just how well, assuming it came to pass, would Republicans apply any measures which unionists had to accept in a United Ireland settlement? These aren’t good omens.

                1. BlakeFelix

                  Oh, ya, not good omens, unless you are all about Irish reunification. Which doesn’t look good for the Unionists, which is why opening that particular can of worms seemed like a bad idea to me. The default drops a hard, and illegal, border in Ireland, so all bets are off, as far as I can tell, and England doesn’t look to be heading into the chaos with a strong hand at all. Although talking like GB is GOOD for Irish food security sounds like a joke to me. Maybe for the NI Protestants, but the last Irish famine was from GB stealing our/their food and selling it, and GB looks more likely to be needing rather than leading any huge humanitarian efforts while dealing with COVID and a hard Brexit.

                  1. Clive

                    You’ve kindly illustrated the point entirely: in a situation such as where, say, due to disrupted supply chains (be it through man-made or natural causes) were disrupted and the UK had to bring in non-standard foodstuffs, as sovereign in Northern Ireland, the UK government would have to decide whether to allow a derogation from what they’d previously declared as their third-country standards.

                    Until the new Bill before parliament, the UK government would not have been able to take that action. It would have had to seek EU approval (with no guarantee that any such approvals would be given) or else it would have had to act unilaterally — and then have had no domestic UK legal authority to do so, rendering civil servants and the minister liable for civil or even criminal proceedings against them.

                    Much better, then, to resolve all this when you’ve got the luxury of time to prepare the groundwork. And at least everyone knows where they stand, even if some parties don’t like where they’re standing.

                    Oh, and I’m sure the unionists in NI appreciate your concerns. It’s nice to know they’ll be well looked after and have absolutely nothing to fear from anyone. And certainly no possibility anyone would exploit any situation to settle old scores.

                    1. BlakeFelix

                      Ya, seems like we agree, although you do seem more sympathetic to the NI Unionists, while I do kind of feel like they are carpet baggers who can either integrate or f back off to Germany or France or wherever they came from. Which is obviously absurd. Reawakening these old ethnosectarian battle lines seems like particularly ill timed madness to me, as I am trying to say, the only ones who seem to have a clear path to winning anything are the IRA. England doesn’t have either its empire or even a functional self government, so it’s hard to see how or why they are going to push the EU around over one small and unprofitable colony, even if they uncharacteristicly let them vote for parliament. Maybe the ghost of Margaret Thatcher will show up to help… And I generally LIKE Margaret Thatcher, the English Empires decision to self immolate rather than reform leaves a power vacuum that I find highly disturbing.
                      Much like the EU, and the US. The CCP seem to be the only big players not intent on shooting themselves in the foot, and they scare me more than the doofuses with elite degrees we are managing to field, which takes some doing. Climate change is still the existential threat, all this racist bickering isn’t going to look good in hindsight IMO.

                    2. BlakeFelix

                      Ya, seems like we agree, although you do seem more sympathetic to the NI Unionists, while I do kind of feel like they are carpet baggers who can either integrate or f back off to Germany or France or wherever they came from. Which is obviously absurd. Reawakening these old ethnosectarian battle lines seems like particularly ill timed madness to me, as I am trying to say, the only ones who seem to have a clear path to winning anything are the IRA. England doesn’t have either its empire or even a noticeably functional self government, so it’s hard to see how or why they are going to push the EU around over one small and unprofitable colony, even if they uncharacteristicly let them vote for parliament. Maybe the ghost of Margaret Thatcher will show up to help… And I generally LIKE Margaret Thatcher, the English Empires decision to self immolate rather than reform leaves a power vacuum that I find highly disturbing.
                      Much like the EU, and the US. The CCP seem to be the only big players not intent on shooting themselves in the foot, and they scare me more than the doofuses with elite degrees we are managing to field, which takes some doing. Climate change is still the existential threat, all this racist bickering isn’t going to look good in hindsight IMO

                2. disillusionized

                  A hard regulatory and customs border East to West is just as much a violation of the Good Friday Agreement as a hard regulatory and customs border North to South —

                  The problem with this logic is that it pre-cludes both Ireland and the UK from leaving the EU, and at the end of the day then results in the following power politics:

                  Unionism’s views and concerns are just as valid and just as much in need of accommodation as Nationalism’s.

                  You are right, sadly for the Unionists, they don’t have a Unionist Lobby in the two relevant superpowers. I have said it before, and I will say it again, If this is to be parsed in WW2 terms, the EU is Germany, the US is the UK, and the UK is Checkoslovakia.

            2. Tom Doak

              It seems amazing that the relationship between the U.K. and Europe could go down over whether the people of Northern Ireland are allowed to import and consume their chlorinated chicken. But I guess they haven’t liked each other very much to begin with.

              1. Clive

                It is amazing and is as simple and as complex as that.

                And yes, it has become a proxy for far more fundamental questions.

              2. Tom Bradford

                But it isn’t over whether the people of Northern Ireland are allowed to import and consume their chlorinated chicken. It’s whether they should be allowed to import their chlorinated chicken and then export it over an open border into the EU for consumption in Dublin or Paris etc.

                That’s my understanding, anyway.

                1. Clive

                  Yes that’s broadly the case but that simplification is lacking an important nuance.

                  Which is: the previous reading of the Northern Ireland Protocol (prior to the new legislation brought by the U.K. government) was that the EU got to determine which goods circulating in the U.K. internal market were a risk of entering the EU Single Market and contravening EU standards. If the U.K. government didn’t like it, it had to prove the opposite.

                  Now, it will be the U.K. government which makes the determination and the EU will have the burden of proof.

                  For the most part, this will all be clear cut. Chlorinated chicken is an obvious no-no. But hormone injected meat — where it is the EU which is acting unlawfully against WTO rulings in banning importation — is a good example of where the U.K. government may well want to tell the EU to take a hike, it’s the EU that’s in the wrong and if the U.K. wishes to import hormone injected beef from the US, then the people of Northern Ireland can be allowed to tuck into it, too. Or if the U.K. government wants to say to WTO Member States in relation to the EU’s non payment of the Airbus state aid fine “hey, we’re with you, stiff the EU with punitive tariffs until the bill is paid, but we’re nothing to do with them“.

                  Otherwise, without the new U.K. government legislation, the EU can force the U.K. to be in total lockstep with it, no exemptions, no matter what. Or, if it’s foodstuffs, and the U.K. government wants to vary in what it allows in circulation in the U.K. internal market, the EU can force it to cut off exports of foodstuffs to Northern Ireland. Having nonstandard (to the EU) foodstuffs enter U.K. (NI) has consequences. But with the new legislation, the U.K. government gets to pick its poisons.

            3. m-ga

              Clive, a couple of weak points in your argument:

              1. You write ” … that is never going to be something the U.K. government would do” in relation to abuse of EU food standards (chlorinated chicken example). But in fact, there appears little the U.K. government under Johnson would not do. This is amply illustrated by the proposed U.K. internal market bill, and its ramifications for the international reputation of the U.K. So, as per one of your earlier arguments, maybe the EU27 know exactly what they’re dealing with in Johnson, and will not offer Johnson a guarantee (such as unobstructed food imports to NI, and hence to ROI/EU) that they can reasonably expect Johnson to abuse.

              2. The East-West Britain-Ireland border is disanalogous to the North-South NI/ROI border, in that the former is a natural (sea) border and the latter is an artificial land border. So, there are already light touch checks on the East-West border (e.g. your papers are checked on entering a ferry, even if it’s just the ticket right now). Extending the light touch East-West checks is more palatable than introducing North-South checks where there are currently none.

              Not sure if it’s possible to update your argument to take these points into account. If not, very difficult to see a way to excuse the recent U.K. actions.

              1. Clive

                1. If the UK government wants to allow chlorinated chicken as part of its food standards, it can make that decision and face the electoral consequences (if there are any). The UK government can then tell the EU it intends to let chlorinated chicken be in circulation in the GB market but, as part of its WTO third country listing, it won’t export fresh (i.e. unprocessed) chicken to the EU and this will include UK (NI). The UK government and the EU can then agree what GB-to-UK (NI) checks are needed. That’s fine and not particularly controversial as a steady-state situation.

                But what happens if the UK government wants to import GMOs, hormone injected meat or anything else which the WTO has ruled is entirely permissible, but the EU had flouted the WTO rules and refuses to import it? Why should the UK government be forced to adhere to the EU’s unlawful food standards? The UK government has every legal right to tell the EU to go away, it’s allowing these food products into UK (NI) and if the EU doesn’t like it, then tough, the UK government is playing by the rules, the EU should, too. If not, it’s a case of “rules based international order for thee, but not for me”.

                Similarly, what happens if due to any unforeseen situation, the UK government wants to make a perfectly reasonable temporary waiver in food standards (weather impacts, animal epidemics affecting supplies of a particular meat product, conflict etc.) to ensure food security in Northern Ireland — probably by taking steps to ensure such products are marked (“Not For Sale in the EU”) to show where sale of those products is allow (or not) and taking other steps to prevent entry into the Single Market such as consignment tracking? Why should it have to gain EU approval before acting? It is the EU’s responsibility to show how the UK government’s actions have harmed it, or they could harm it and those harms are material and not perfectly justified as a proportionate response to some event or other — why should the EU be allowed to automatically discharge the burden of proof?

                2. Is playing “good borders, bad borders”. The UK chose to leave the EU, that’s its legitimate choice to make, and that choice has consequences. Ireland chooses to remain in the EU, that’s its legitimate choice to make, that choice has consequences. If republicans chose to blame unionists for the consequences of leaving the EU, that enables, by the same logic, republicans to be blamed by unionists for Ireland wanting to be an EU Member State. Another Northern Ireland stalemate statement, in other words, that gets no-one anywhere.

                1. vlade

                  There is no situation under which the NI can be under the EU rules and the UK rules at the same time, unless the rules are exactly the same.

                  This was a known point ever since the NI question was raised for the first time, and the only practical solutions are either a NI-Ireland border or NI-GB border.

                  Which is why May gave up on it, and was pushing for NI-Ireland border (in effect).

                  Johnson signed the deal, which in effect gave a whole bunch of NI sovreignty to the EU. Which is why DUP objected, and a number of Tory MPs objected – until Cummings told them “don’t worry, we’re going to ignore it anyways, we just need it now to win the elections.”

                  Now Johnson is doing what Cummings said he would, breaking the deal, when they no longer need it.

                  The whys etc. are irrelevant – they are not even excuses. They were as valid (or not) when the WA-NI was signed as they are today.

                  Johnson knew he was (if upheld) signing away NI’s sovreignty from the UK to the EU, and was claiming it was a great success.

                  Johnson negotiated in bad faith, knowing he’d break it when and as he wanted. As I wrote before, it now almost drowned CV in the UK, and it was very clear he expected Labour to take the bait on this.

                  1. Clive


                    There is no situation under which the NI can be under the EU rules and the UK rules at the same time, unless the rules are exactly the same.

                    Not what’s written into the Irish Protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement:

                    In taking decisions under Article 10 [agricultural products], the European Commission shall take the circumstances in Northern Ireland into account as appropriate.

                    The EU has all the legal wriggle room it needs, if it wants to use it. If the EU wants to take a hard line — “no deviations ev-ah!” — it can. If it want to fudge some things here and there, it can do that, too.

                    If it doesn’t want to fudge things, it doesn’t have to but not applying a little fudge when fudge would help has consequences.

                    There’s no harm at all in drawing up an agreement (as a theoretical construct) then seeing how it goes in reality. Like the Bible, anyone can read anything they like into the Withdrawal Agreement. Its such a hotchpotch of competing aims and objectives, any attempt at legalism is doomed to fail in the face of political imperatives.

                    The UK government can say, if it likes, well, we gave it (the Irish Protocol) a go, if it didn’t work out for the EU because they wouldn’t live with our interpretations of real-world issues, then that’s too bad.

                    I notice its being reported today that Barnier isn’t taking any legal action against the UK government. So he hasn’t got enough legal ammunition, ironically, having as the Commission does such a legalistic approach, to slug it out in dispute resolution. Either that, or Barnier wants to avoid a test case like the UK listing GMOs and hormone injected meat and the EU saying (up front) it will reject these items as impermissible imports and insist that UK (NI) does too.

                    1. vlade

                      “In taking decisions under Article 10 [agricultural products], the European Commission shall take the circumstances in Northern Ireland into account as appropriate.”

                      That’s an EU decision, which falls under the EU rules.

                      The reality is, Johnson signed off part of NI sovreignty. That’s it.

                      The EU even has handy slides to explain it

                      It has even worked-out examples of Belfast Liverpool trade flows.

                      And has been around for ages. I’m sure someone in the UK govt could have read them.

                      Screaming now “we don’t like it, so we’re going to override it” – well, no amout of talk is going to change that
                      a) Johnson signed it (when May refused)
                      b) Johnson presented it as a great victory
                      c) Johnson decided to do away with the bad bits after he signed them, and there’s indirect evidence (Cumings blogs), that he was always going to do so, and thus negotiated in bad faith.

                      The world diplomacy works on a combination of pacta-sund-servanda and might-makes-right. Johnson wants to ditch the first, very visibly, w/o even any attempt to cover it. But at the same time, he doesnt’ have any might-makes-right except keeping NI as a hostage. But he forgot that NI is still his, so while Ireland will try to get a result, another result could well be a replay of IRA’s bombings and similar in the UK. The republican’s aren’t going to bomb the EU, and the Unionsts, if Johnson strips the NI from Ireland, will have no reason.

          2. vlade

            “That the Brexit is what we say it is when we say it, no matter what we said before. And anyone who doesn’t take it like that is an enemy.”

            1. Clive

              Yep, that about sums it up.

              And if the EU doesn’t like it, it can walk away. Legally, it has every justification it needs to do that. And arguably, morally too.

              But that doesn’t mean there aren’t consequences. Especially on the island of Ireland North/South.

              Which is exactly where we all started from, four and a half years ago…

              1. vlade

                Yes, the “rational” approach would be to tell the UK to go and screw itself, slapping a trade war on it in the process. Like It would help the EU with dealing with Russia and China.

                But the EU still feels it has an obligation to one ot its members, Ireland, and so will try to do somehing. And, TBH, because really rationally, it must. If it throws a single weaker memeber under the bus w/o some very visible effort, then none of the other smaller members would believe their interests would be looked after when needed, and it would be the end of the EU.

                1. Clive

                  And that means dealing with Johnson. And U.K. politics.

                  The EU’s choice. But they’ll get little sympathy from me complaining about it. il faut souffrir — to get what you want, you must suffer for it. Here as elsewhere. The EU itself certainly isn’t whiter-than-white, either.

                  1. BillK

                    Isn’t it the point that the EU started negotiations from the position of trying to stop Brexit? The EU has other unhappy members watching carefully to see what happens to Brexit.
                    Unable to stop Brexit, the EU then changed tack to BRINO (Brexit in name only), like the May deal which left the UK under EU jurisdiction.
                    Emotionally many voters will support Boris in avoiding BRINO. It’s not all about money, as London seems to think.

                    1. PlutoniumKun

                      The EU never tried to stop Brexit, they always stated that they accepted the UK’s right to withdraw and never interfered in a manner that could stop it. But it is true that they have a vested interest in seeing Brexit visibly fail. They would certainly have liked a BRINO as that would suit industry and business, but it became clear over time that this was not likely due to London politics.

                    2. vlade

                      There is no country in the EU which would, at the moment, have enough voters to vote leave, should there be a referendum. That’s true even for the most EU-sceptic country now left in the EU, the Czech Republic.

                      And, as PK writes, while the EU wanted as soft Brexit as possible, it’s just protecting its interests. But it has said, and shown (by planning for it), that it’s ok with a no-deal Brexit if that’s wha the UK wants.

    3. vidimi

      the default result is a hard brexit with a hard border between northern ireland and the republic of ireland. in this situation, GB would be able to send all the animals, alive or dead, to NI as it wished. barnier can’t threaten anything, explicitly or otherwise.

      the EU would like to avoid this scenario at almost all cost, but it is the default.

  4. rusti

    Even US Congresscritters have cleared their throats and said the UK can kiss its US trade deal goodbye if it messes with the GFA.

    Why do any American congresspeople (just Democrats, from what I can tell) care about the GFA? Surely Richard Neal, Pelosi and others aren’t all that sentimental about Bill Clinton’s foreign policy legacy when they don’t look beyond the 24-hour news cycle. I can’t imagine any significant percentage of American voters know what the GFA is. What’s the political calculation here? It might make sense to me if they’re posturing to deny a free-trade deal from a Republican administration, but I bet they think they’ll have the executive branch in 4 months.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The Irish Government has done an extremely good job of making friends with US elected representatives. We’ve written about this before. Ireland has way way way way more and more loyal allies in Congress than the UK.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Ireland has long cultivated a range of Congressmen and Senators. It used to be just Irish Americans, but they’ve long managed to persuade a wider range of politicians that the Irish community can raise a lot of problems for a politician. Both the Clintonites and Obamites have fully bought in, and Trump is surrounded by a clutch of Irish-Americans (or at least, self identifying ones). Just look at the attendee list for any St. Patricks Day function compared to, say, a function for the Queens Birthday.

      Historically, the Irish embassy has punched way beyond its weight in Washington – during the original GFA they ran rings around the much larger British presence. This is what small countries do, they invest heavily in soft power and grab any influence they can. Ireland, like Israel, has proven particularly skilled at it.

      1. Basil Pesto

        before your post, I almost commented “it’s the other AIPAC!!” in reply to Yves – I thought better of it because I didn’t want to dumb down the high calibre dialogue in comments, but it seems like I was on to something!

      2. rusti

        Thanks PK, Yves and others for the responses. What sorts of tangible forms might this cultivation take? I that Israel has a huge network of donors for campaign contributions at every level, that the gulf monarchies patronize the Clinton Foundation and think tanks and buy weapons, but I’m curious as to how Ireland manages this feat.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          There is a lot of entertaining and ground level buttering up of politicians – I’m reliably informed that Irish embassy parties in pretty much any country are considered the best. But in the US is really comes down to the influence of the Irish-American lobby. Even though the number of ‘real’ Irish Americans is dropping by the year, they are a sufficiently organised (and wealthy) voting block that they can make a significant difference in dozens of electoral districts. And successive Irish governments have always seen using those ties as completely central to foreign policy, they devote enormous time and energy to cultivating the right people.

          You can trace it back to the mid 19th Century when Irish catholic immigrants realised to their horror that the real decisions about their lives in the New World were being made by the same Wasp types they thought they’d escaped from. They made a concerted attempt to wrestle power from the ground level up from those Wasps, and have never really lost the habit (the ascent of the Kennedy clan was seen as the ultimate triumph over the Wasps). They’ve been doing it longer than any other ‘ethnic’ group and so have historically been rather good at it. My Irish-American relatives are quite equally split between Republicans and Democrats, but they would be united in voting in what they see as the auld countries interest, no matter who the politician.

          It also helps that Ireland has been seen as a bridge country for US investments in Europe. There is a lot of nonsense written about Ireland being a tax haven (plenty of other European countries play the tax game) – the primary reason that Google and Apple etc. base themselves in Ireland is simply that they feel more comfortable working in a country with similar laws and the same language. And this link with those companies is also useful leverage in Washington.

          1. eg

            Regarding the wealth bit, I recall that at one time more US CEOs claimed Irish heritage than any other, though I don’t know whether or not this is still the case.

            I can say that among the diaspora there remains in certain circles a hostility to the English that might puzzle many Irish actually living in Ireland. Certainly my father, 4th generation Canadian though he was, never had a good word to say about them.

        2. Jessica

          The Irish-American population in the US is quite large.
          Culturally, diaspora populations tend to be culturally conservative. They tend to retain the attitudes that they had when the left the homeland. Irish-Americans are more nationalist than the Irish are (in my experience).
          The Catholic Church has also historically had a large number of Irish-Americans in its upper ranks.
          This gives Irish diplomacy a lot of material to work with.
          English and Scots-Irish immigrants to America came early and, in part thanks to the absence of religious discrimination, melted into the general population more thoroughly. So there is no large population of English-Americans or Unionist Northern Irish Americans pushing back in the other direction. That makes supporting Irish diplomacy a fairly safe move for most politicians.

    3. BlakeFelix

      There are a lot more people of Irish decent in America than Ireland IIRC, and they have more money, and we haven’t forgotten. Branches of my family fled the famine, we were just talking about seeing what the deal is with getting Irish citizenship the other day, as we are getting sick of this failed state garbage, although I don’t expect the talking to go anywhere. It looks like about 1/10 Americans self identify as Irish, and that’s enough to tip a lot of elections. Not that I’m very proud of Obama these days, but in my opinion he was as Irish American as he was African American. Bushes, Reagan, Carter, Kennedy, there is quite a streak of Irish in America, and it gets a fair bit of attention. I like Carter, anyway..

      1. rusti

        Thanks, BlakeFelix. Do you think there are very many Americans who identify as Irish-American who are actually versed on politics in the UK? And among those who are, is it really something that impacts the way that they might vote or donate to campaigns in America? I think about the scene from the Sopranos where the gangsters learn from Furio that Northern Italians look down on the South when they’re talking about Christopher Columbus.

        1. BlakeFelix

          Eh, I barely think that there are that many Americans well versed on AMERICAN politics, so no, I would say that few are closely following UK politics, but there are lots who are kind of vaguely proud of their heritage. Being a whatever-American is kind of a thing maybe like a sports Fandom in America? So it varies a lot how seriously people take it, and pretty much both sides court the Irish vote, so I don’t think that it sways elections very much usually, although it used to, Kennedy being Irish Catholic was kind of a big deal, and the local Democratic party discriminated against my great-grandfather back in the day, so I have heard. And Ireland can make a lot of hay out of even a vague and distant loyalty, 1/10th of America is a lot. Lots go back to visit, also.

    4. Tim Smyth

      One thing to keep in mind is there is not really any political upside for the Democrats in any type of bilateral trade agreements with the UK or anyone else simply as a matter of domestic US politics as most readers of NC I think will understand(We are not in the Bill Clinton 1990s era anymore). On the other hand a US-UK trade deal has huge emotional resonance for the Brexiteers.

  5. SlayTheSmaugs

    From the extremely ignorant position of my living room armchair, which I offer as a caveat for the observations that follow— people who are on the ground should feel free to correct me as nonsensical— it seems to me that Johnson understands that the emotional substance of Brexit really was about a hard break from the EU and a return to a time in which Great Britain was fully sovereign. And the emotional substance is what he cares about maybe because he feels it but also because that’s what drives voters.

    As a result as his knowledge belatedly catches up to the reality of the integration with the EU that already existed and what it would take to achieve that nostalgic independence, he increasingly acts to directly achieve that independence even as it means undoing prior commitments and apparent bad faith. I am willing to bet that he really didn’t understand the restrictions on England’s ability to invest in northern Ireland that he had already agreed to, and once he did he recognized that they were incompatible with the vision of independent Britain that he and his followers have. So he reneges.

    The internal Irish border has always been the fulcrum of the situation, and Johnson I think quite rightly understands— the way Israelis who make their facts in the ground have always understood— that in many ways it’s just a big game of chicken. There’s really only one way to stop him and that’s direct nation to nation confrontation which could include war. Something no longer in the box of negotiations, but very direct ‘here is the line and you have gone over it or are about to and there will be consequences that are the following’ and then those consequences have to follow.

    If the EU is unwilling to confront Britain, Johnson can simply shove his way through to breaching EU territorial/regulatory integrity, in fact doing what he likes for Northern Ireland and having no border of any meaning with the nation of Ireland.
    Essentially Ireland would become a second class state that is neither EU nor Great Britain.

    Another way to put this is to say Ireland is going to discover whether or not the EU really has its back.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      The problem is that there has been a great deal of misreporting on Brexit. Chris Grey on his Brexit blog has done a terrific job of chronicling how Brexit was never clearly defined by its backers at the time of the vote. All of the to-ing and fro-ing under May was a function of the fuzziness and the divisions among the Tories.

      The notion of what Brexit was over time was successfully hijacked by the most radical group, the European Research Group (which we have also called the Ultras). Both Grey and Richard North have also described how their vision became more extreme after the referendum.

      Finally, Johnson was not elected by anything resembling a democratic process. Only 160,000 Tory party members were eligible to vote in the leadership contest, meaning Johnson won based on getting only about 100,000 votes. The Ultras were very much over-represented among Tory party members; in fact the membership grew by at least 40,000 due to this contest and I am confident those new members skewed very heavily to Ultras.

      During the period when Johnson was going on about “clean break,” approval for Brexit fell to about 40%.

      1. SlayTheSmaugs

        So that simply makes Johnson’s charging forward to make facts on the ground to his liking the more appalling because he has no mandate

        I think though it’s really important to see him behaving in the game of chicken manner; it really isn’t about what he says or commits to. He is simply going to focus on making the situation look the way he wants it to look unless and until someone makes him stop

        1. Azure Triune

          Brexit drove me to vote Tory for the first time in my life. Corbyn got a raw deal from the press, as always, but Labour’s extreme wishy-washiness was maddening. Johnson seemed the most likely to achieve what I want, which is indeed a hard break. Don’t know if that makes me an Ultra – we have little in common otherwise – but I’m far from alone.

          I rather think Johnson did have a mandate, what with the referendum, the 2019 European election whereby the Brexit Party came out on top, and of course the general election last year which saw Labour comprehensively trounced.

      2. Harry

        “Brexit means Brexit”

        What mathematician wouldn’t love that self-referential definition? Must pull down my copy of Godel, Esher, Bach…

    2. PlutoniumKun

      The problem with playing around with the Irish border, is that the last time Britain did that, the result was bombs going off in London. The IRA came within a whisker of assassinating Thatcher. Violence in NI spilling over onto London (and trust me, Republicans in particular know one bomb in London is worth 100 in Belfast) would be Covid + Brexit x10.

      As for the Republic and the EU, there is no question whatever but that Ireland is firmly bound to Brussels. The Irish establishment (from left to right wing in Irish politics, there is unanimity on this) has tied itself firmly to the EU. And it is not in the EU’s interest to betray a loyal member – in fact, thats very much its raison d’être politically. Brussels (or Berlin/Paris) does not want to have to spend money on protecting Ireland. But if they feel they have no choice, they will do it. The political consequences of not doing it could be fatal for the EU project, and the EU Project is absolutely central to the politics of all the major European countries.

      1. SlayTheSmaugs

        I understand. The worst nightmares that flow from Brexit are all along the Irish fault line and always have been. But think it through:

        If Boris just pushes ahead making facts on the ground to his liking, and the heck with whatever international commitments Britain has made, what will the EU do to stop him and enforce its territorial and regulatory integrity? What, in actual facts on the ground reality, does it mean for the EU to have Ireland’s back? How soon, and how decisively, does the EU need to make clear it has Ireland’s back? What does that look like?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          In simple concrete terms it means a hard border – which in reality means initially the Irish republic will have to put up customs and other regulatory barriers along what is a very difficult border. This is extremely fraught and difficult, but in terms of tracking the majority of goods, it will be necessary. It should be said though that Northern Ireland will suffer from this far more than the Republic, as it is far more depend on trade south than vice versa, especially the food industry (a lot of beef and dairy produced in NI is processed in the south). It also means that the Irish Republic would have to change its core supply lines from going via the UK to direct links to France and Spain. Difficult, but logistically possible.

          The problem for the UK is that the less they co-operate with this, the more difficult the EU will make life for them. Put in raw power terms, the EU can hurt the UK far more than the UK can hurt Ireland. And the notion that the UK can be rescued by trade with North America or the ex colonies or Asia is simply a Brexiteer fantasy that has no basis in reality.

          1. SlayTheSmaugs

            Yes. But can a hard border be re-established and maintained, while the peace is kept? And doesn’t that put Ireland, as a nation, in a horrible position? Can Ireland support the hard border solution?

            1. PlutoniumKun

              There has been a hard border before, and it was horrendously expensive to maintain and economically damaging. Around a quarter of the Irish police and army were engaged full time in border controls at one time (mostly anti-terrorism, not trade). The big problem now is that two decades of peace has ensured far tighter links that will have to be broken. Not just for major industries – thousands of people cross the border daily as part of normal day to day business.

              Politically it will be hard, but the Dublin government is in the fortunate position that their hands are clean – all the chaos that undoubtedly emerges will be blamed on London. From the Dublin right wing establishment to Sinn Fein, there is surprisingly little difference on this.

              Essentially, Dublin will do what it has to do to stay within the EU’s rules. The economic hit will be severe, but there are strong hopes that it will be mitigated by EU funds and Brexit refugee businesses moving (there are already a lot of these).

              1. SlayTheSmaugs

                May a hard border prove unnecessary because Britain becomes more sane.

                May a hard border, if necessary, not unleash a wave of terror that further destabilizes our already unstable times.

                May there come a time, in my lifetime, when the entire island of Ireland can function smoothly without a hard border under a single government supported by a clear majority of people residing on the island so that the idea of an internal border is forever gone.


                1. Donn

                  Amen indeed. And no matter what constitutional and political settlements lie ahead for them, may the people, families and communities across Scotland, Wales and England likewise come through all this with as little suffering, loss and remorse as one might ever hope to see.

              2. Tom Bradford

                I assume the border could be as hard or soft as Eire chooses. Checkpoints on main roads only, waving private cars and small trucks, ie ‘local’ traffic, through isn’t going to upset the locals too much while stopping anything with 6-wheels or more for a customs check will stop all but small-scale smuggling that’s going to happen anyway. What the UK does on its side is a matter for London.

                1. vlade

                  No. Ireland is limited in this by its EU treaty. The best would be sort of Norway-Sweden border, or the Swiss (whic has checkpoints, including private cars etc..).

                  1. PlutoniumKun

                    The nature of controls is of course set by EU statute, but the key question for Ireland is how it tries to maintain this control, and how far a ‘blind eye’ can be turned to localised trade that doesn’t strictly speaking conform to regulations (i.e. the local guy with a small van moving things around minor roads in border areas).

                    As far as they possibly can, I’m quite certain the Irish government will be desperate to avoid physical controls on all but the biggest roads – the main one being the Dublin Belfast road. But there are literally hundreds of other crossings – some roads cross the border multiple times, and they will try I’m sure to focus on electronic and ‘factory gate’ type controls as far as possible.

  6. jackiebass

    Boris remind me of Trump. He peddles snake oil, lies, and can’t be rusted. When he was running a red flag appeared for me. He seemed to me to be dishonest doing anything to make himself look good. I thought he would win but was surprised by his huge majority. Uk voters put him in and now they will get their payback. Before Borus is kicked out he will succeed in destroying the UK. Not unlike republican presidents in the Us. It will take decades for the UK to recover from Boris.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      No, no, see my comment above. Only 160,000 were eligible to vote for the Tory party leader. Johnson does not have the support of “voters” in any normal sense.

      1. Robert Dudek

        Initially, yes. But there has been an election since. Johnson can be got rid of at any time by conservative MPs – who were elected in a general election. He’s as democratically legitimate as any other Prime Minister.

  7. LowellHighlander

    Might there not be wider implications to Boris Johnson’s duplicity here? After all his contemptuous treatment of the EU (and its member countries, by extension), wouldn’t nationalists in Scotland and Cymru now find more sympathetic ears [to their cause] on the contintent?

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I think the Scots are too big a problem for the EU even to contemplate. Also, there is a long established principle within the EU not to comment on, or interfere with, such ‘internal’ matters, especially when they involve national borders, unless they are specifically invited by the national government (as occurred with the GFA).

      Anyway, it would be too inflammatory now for the EU to make moves like that. But in the event of a hard brexit, I’d be surprised if a newly independent Scotland didn’t get a sympathetic hearing at Brussels. But it would only be after a referendum vote, I can’t see any European leader wanting to get embroiled in that type of politics, its just not in their interest, and it could blow up in their faces badly if things got really bad in the UK.

      Having said that, Dublin and Edinburgh have good informal contacts, I suspect that Dublin acts as a quiet conduit for discussions between Edinburgh and Brussels if they are required.

      Last year the leader of Plaid Cymru was in Ireland, arguing for a sort of informal Celtic League in a post Brexit world, where Dublin would informally represent Edinburgh and Cardiff in Brussels in a post-Brexit world. This isn’t unprecedented, as some non-EU countries (mostly ex colonies) have this type of arrangement. He came across very well in interviews and I think he got a sympathetic hearing, although the current Irish PM would be more sympathetic ideologically than Varadkar.

    2. paul

      I don’t think there is much enthusiasm for regime change, however mild, in western europe. Belarus,Syria etc are far enough away to find chest beating support.

  8. Ignacio

    It seems to me Johnson is trying to imitate Trump with his breaking rules style. This will not be enjoyed in the EU and will probably drive the Germans crazy.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’ve no doubt whatever that at least part of this is motivated by a belief that Trump style chaos can work. But there is a world of difference between dealing with Middle Eastern or Asian nations and internally within Europe. I strongly suspect that behind closed doors the reaction is absolute horror, and most likely a determination to make sure it doesn’t work – if for no other reason that it would be a horrible precedent to set.

      1. SlayTheSmaugs

        Again, so what does “most likely a determination to make sure it doesn’t work – if for no other reason that it would be a horrible precedent to set.” mean in practice? What must the EU actually do?

        1. PlutoniumKun

          It means they don’t play the game. The assumption seems to be that this is intended to provoke the EU into doing something which can allow Johnson to say ‘see? They are trying to destroy us! We don’t need their stinkin’ deal’.

          There is also no doubt a hope that the veiled threats aimed at Irelands supply chain links with Europe will be used to force Ireland into a side deal (this has for years been part of the UK’s strategy, although they have been woefully inept at implementing it).

          So the EU response will most likely be to play things absolutely straight, and even make a few concessions. Ireland will refuse to be drawn into any parallel discussions. They will want to make it plain that it is the UK that is walking out, not vice versa. There may also be a hope in some circles in the EU that this is all bluster to hide a major climbdown by Johnson if they panic when faced with the reality of a no-deal (as he did last time). So they will simply play things straight as an arrow, while in the meanwhile there are frantic preparations going on for an actual no-deal.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Simple answer: yes.

      Even in Tory and finance circles there are rumours that there are people who hope to profit from a hard exit.

      1. Follow the Money

        Well there you are. I also guess that these bets will pay out handsomely allowing the profiteeers to buy citizenship elsewheere and flee the mess. Wouldn’t expect any political Deus Ex Machina saving this then.

    2. Synoia

      Yes, After the crash-out, there will be many unemployed, followed by foreclosures and distress swelling of Houses.

      The UK would be following the Black Rock’s example following the Lehman crash.

      The focus would probably be on property in and around London.

    3. EoH

      PK’s succinct “Yes” says it all. Global capital is lurking offshore like a pack of U-boats. The City also expects to make a bundle. As Billy Ray Valentine observed about the Duke brothers, it will make money regardless of whether its clients make or lose money.

  9. a different chris

    To reverse the famous quote, politics is war by other means.

    Johnson is fighting a war with the EU to “reclaim” Britain, I guess back to some resemblance of the glory days but I really don’t know, and so everything is just a battle and the results of any given skirmish thus are not seen as permanent.

    If you look at it that way then all the stuff he does makes perfect sense. Signing an agreement that doesn’t say what you want it to say is like retreating from a battlefield to regroup and try again at some future point.

    That doesn’t even make him a liar (although of course he is a liar, as lying is his equivalent of say positioning a naval fleet), it just makes him your opponent.

    The EU better get it’s bureaucratic mindset around this tout suite. I have no doubt they will prevail eventually, like the North did over the South in our real Civil War, but the several years of catastrophe that we endured before Grant et. al. took it seriously may have already started.

    1. Zamfir

      If the UK wants to blow the blow the relationship, there’s nothing the EU can do about it. I don’t think “bureaucratic mindset” has much to do with it – no mindset can save a relationship if the other side is determined to screw it up.

      Once you start thinking in terms of opponents and battles, the main damage is already done. Now it’s just going through the motions .

      1. a different chris

        They don’t want to just blow up the relationship, the Tories want way more than that.

        And yes, don’t you think the damage *is* “already done”?

        1. apleb

          It depends *which* damage.
          Before “We want out since we hate you” sort of like a divorce. It happens and there are procedures to end it. Messy but doable.

          If UK isn’t agreement capable anymore however, all their future dealings with everyone, not just a future spouse, will be tarnished however. No one from them baker down the street to your bank will give a cent for your signature under anything anymore.

          This is especially bad with all the trade agreements the UK has to do in the very near future. They simply are a bad risk with a credit rating of F—- then by any rating agency. Anyone doing a trade agreement with the UK will certainly look very hard and critically to anything the UK accomplishes with the EU first.

  10. The Rev Kev

    I can see that this is a hot topic tonight. The post ends with the observation that ‘it’s hard to see how he can escape responsibility if he persists in his current course.’ But then it occurred to me. Suppose that he goes ahead and makes a total dog’s breakfast of the whole process. Brexit is a disaster and causes consequences like Scotland breaking away from the union and maybe Northern Ireland going its own way. Who can say?

    But what consequences will Boris Johnson ever suffer? He has spent his whole life protected by a matrix of people so that he always fails up – and makes a little money on the way. No matter how terrible his judgement, no matter how many bad decisions and relationships that he has, it seems that he is always given a free pass to walk away and do something else. I mean it is not like he will go to prison for what he is doing. So what consequences will he suffer that he will care about?

    In reading up on his bio, I came across something interesting. Recently he made ex-Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot a member of his trade team. To my surprise I just found out that Boris Johnson was made Honorary Australian of the Year back in 2014. Saywhatnow? Playing a hunch I checked and found out that in 2014 the Prime Minister of Australia was – drum roll – Tony Abbott. How about that.

  11. David

    Sometimes the simple and banal explanation is the best one. From Cameron onwards, the UK position has been decided and pushed by people who aren’t up to the job. The last time the UK was confronted with anything similar was thirty years ago at the time of the Political and Monetary Union Treaties. John Major, then PM, was not the sharpest tool in the box, but at least he understood that, and was ready to take advice. He also had a first-class machine irking for him. Things are different now.
    In addition, since the Blair years, government and politics have been consistently drained of any actual content. The important thing, as Alastair Campbell was fond of saying, was to “win the day” in the media. Reality was a secondary issue, with is why today, after decades of this, we have a government whose only strategic objective is not to be blamed for the inevitable disaster.
    When somebody gives you a job you can’t do, you panic, you hide, you bluster and in the end you cheat. Which is what’s happening. The EU’s behaviour has not been perfect, but I don’t think anybody at th time could reasonably have expected the British government to do what it has done. (Murray is discussing a rather different issue actually). If you don’t start negotiations assuming they are in good faith there’s not a lot of point in negotiating.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, I think its unwise to assume that this is some sort of grand strategy. I think there is a strong belief held by Cummings and Johnson that when you are on the back foot, the best thing is to sow a little chaos and see what happens. Sometimes it even works – but its no way to run a modern country.

      When you look at the bios of the current UK cabinet, its not hard to weep. The best of them are mediocricities, most are worse, they are serial failures. Just look at the current Attorney General. And you would know more than I about the quality of the top civil servants now after several decades of relentless battering.

      I’ve said it here before, but its an ongoing joke in Ireland that Irish politicians now love the UK government because every time a Tory opens his mouth, Irish people are reminded that there really are worse politicians out there than the ones we choose.

  12. CletracSteve

    As part of this article/thread discusses not only Brexit but BJ’s character, I like to remind myself that Boris was born in the U.S. We here, across the pond, could have him as our Dear Leader after a few years should he be ostracized from No 10, and then from the “Islands” in general.

    1. Big Al

      No you couldn’t, he renounced his US citizenship in 2016 for tax reasons. It looks like the UK is stuck with him.

      1. Azure Triune

        Sorry for the redundant post – Big Al’s must also have been in moderation.

        2016 was a banner year for renunciations, as that’s when my wife did it too – also for tax reasons. What with FATCA and the monumental pain in the arse that is filing from abroad, she judged it no longer worthwhile to be a subject of the IRS.

  13. Michael Miller

    Craig Murray has a very chequered past and more than enough reasons to be bitter at the current government. After being removed from the Foreign Office he turned into a left wing liberal political activist (his words) and is now a member of the Scottish National Party campaigning for Scottish independence from Westminster and England.

    1. ChrisG

      “removed from the Foreign Office” is a rather tendentious version of what happened to Craig Murray. As UK ambassador in Uzbekistan he discovered that the UK Government was using “evidence” extracted by torture (including a case of boiling a man alive). Murray sought to clarify how the FCO approach meshed with the “ethical foreign policy” instituted by the former Foreign Secretary Robin Cook. Jack Straw responded by gagging him and launching a baseless corruption/sex scandal investigation against him, and Murray spent a few years fighting unjust dismissal. (See Murder in Samarkand for details.) Craig Murray is currently one of the very few journalists attending the Julian Assange extradition hearing. (Thanks Yves for reposting his daily reports!) In my view Craig Murray is one of the last people in our benighted kingdom deserving of drive-by smears.

    2. wilroncanada

      Why is any of what you have written any evidence of a chequered past? You would need to explain. But don’t bother. I know he pissed off the ptb.

  14. The Pale Scot


    If the UK and US are rogue states, it’s because their people tolerate being led by rogues.

    That’s because other than NZ and a portion of Canada, the English speakers still see piracy (theft, slavery, genocide) as a legitimate way of conducting bizness

    All UK needs to do is write up a list of regs. If they don’t want to adhere to 1st world sanitary standards, say it. And provide a regulatory pathway for firms that want to keep exporting to the EU to be able to do it. Except, I’m sure that vast majority of producers would do just that. They need access to those markets to smooth out production/supply bubbles and to sell product that isn’t preferred in England.

    Looks like NORAID is going to be revving back up no matter what he does. And not implementing strong border checks immediately? The Provos and their kit will be waved right thru? At the same time UK access to the EU criminal database is restricted? That last long

    1. Clive

      No, this isn’t about business-as-usual standards where everything is all nicely agreed, defined and everyone knows how everything works. This is about the inevitable situations where what seemed clear and obvious turns out not to be quite so clear and obvious or where there’s a wilful variance from agreed standards but for specific reasons.

      The EU wants the UK to seek prior approvals. The UK government wants to reserve the right to act first and sort out the paperwork later.

      Plus, sorting out a few day-1 anomalies, like GMOs, where the EU is in breach of WTO rulings. No way that the UK government should be in an invidious position where it’s forced to break one rule in one place to comply with another in another — it should get to decide which rule it wants to break because you can’t fix a wrong with another wrong. This point in particular would probably be pivotal in the UK being able to do trade deals outside the EU (most would require the UK to take GMO imports).

      1. guurst

        Oh, lay off. Four years of wallowing in zealotry, four years of the unspeakable in full pursuit of the uneatable. Nothing but a crystal funhouse…..

        1. Clive

          I’m really not entirely sure you’re cut out for reading a blog which is devoted to exploration and debate of politics and economics. If I knew of a good website which covers some sort of world where there’s no politics and no economics, I’d recommend it but I don’t.

          1. guurst

            Luckily, the I’s do seem to have it. Politics and economics are not entirely suited
            to explain a faith based Brexit.

            1. Clive

              “faith based” is a bit rich from someone who thinks valid arguments can be formed from the words “Oh, lay off” and indulgences in ad hominems like “wallowing in zealotry”.

                1. Clive

                  It is. If you want to achieve anything in the political realm, you have to be prepared to stand your ideological ground, explain your reasoning and keep plugging away — often for years — with seemingly very little to show for it.

                  Eventually, with a little luck, you might get what you think is the right policy choices enacted. Or, you might not. That’s just the way it goes.

                  Conversely, if you see your task — be-it as an activist agitating for a political change, an advocate trying to convince the un-convinced or even someone merely wanting to familiarise yourself with the underlying issues to support others in common cause as some sort of chore, succumb to the weary-why-me’s and generally see having to explain yourself and what you want to others and get brickbats in return more often than not as some huge unnecessary inconvenience — then you’ll eventually loose that one thing which you can’t accomplish anything without: conviction.

                  At which point, rather than becoming a help, by becoming a resentful, snarky and prone-to-trolling whinge bag, you merely become a hindrance.

                  For some reason I can’t really fathom, I am eager to hear anything sensible on this topic, Remain as a political campaign often lacked just that quality, conviction. It’s why Remain lost and keeps on losing.

  15. David

    TBH the thing that most worries me about any border-related crisis in N Ireland is (would you believe?) the complete incapacity of the British to deal with it. Everybody in London who was involved in the conflict or the peace process has now retired. Anyone who became an MP, joined the civi service, the police or the military, or even became a journalist, after about 1990 will only have the dimmest idea what such a crisis might actually lead to. That includes Johnson and just about all his Cabinet, as well as all the top advisors. The intelligence gathering and border surveillance capabilities that existed then have pretty much gone, and the Army is about half the size it was during the Troubles – less in reality because of recruitment problems.
    The British public isn’t remotely prepared either. It was never very keen on the N Ireland commitment even in the early days, especially as the incessant refrain was repeated every evening on the nine o’clock news in the 1970s, “last night another soldier was killed …”
    Of course, you may well argue, nobody wants the Troubles 2.0, or at least nobody in a position of importance. But not a lot of people, as I recall, wanted Troubles 1.0 in the 60s either. If the essence of good politics is being prepared for things that might happen, even if you don’t think they are likely, then the British government scores a resounding nul points again.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      Yes, I think this is a very important point. It should be noted that the current head of the Irish police force is ex PSNI and is known to be liaising very closely with his former colleagues (we know this because he got himself in a minor car accident during lockdown, the circumstances making it clear that he was having face to face meetings). He has also reorganised the Gardai with one third of personnel being rather unsubtly put under a command structure that happens to coincide with all the border. I believe the Irish Army have also done similar shadow restructuring. So at a ground level, the PSNI are certainly well aware of what could happen and no doubt have their own plans and these will be co-ordinated with Dublin (not necessarily officially). But this is worthless without resources and leadership from London.

      I’m pretty sure that the reflex action of Johnson in the event of major trouble breaking out in NI would be to throw resources at security on ferries and flights to ensure that it can’t ‘spill over’ – i.e. to let NI stew in its problems. I’m equally sure that there are elements among those referred to in border areas as ‘the lads’, will have been thinking carefully on the best way they could send a message to Downing Street. ‘They haven’t gone away, you know’ as Gerry Adams said a few years ago. The response of course of loyalists to what they will see as a betrayal by London will be to take to the streets. Some may take a break from this to check that their EU passport application in Dublin is still processing.

    2. Donn

      Completely agree. Last night, RTÉ broadcast Unquiet Graves, a documentary on the Glenanne Gang, a unionist terrorist group that included British soldiers and RUC policemen.

      For a lot of people in Ireland this morning, the thing that would worry us most isn’t just a complete incapacity of the UK state to deal with a crisis; it’s the prospect of people at the highest levels of Brexit Britain discovering a willingness to do ‘whatever it takes’ to preserve the British union.

    1. Yves Smith Post author

      There was an excellent post on ConsortiumNews that explained that the notion of a Labour rout was misunderstood despite appearances:

      Labour’s vote share in the election was 32.2 percent. That compares with the 30.4 percent it achieved in the general election of 2015, just before Corbyn became leader, when the Labour Party was led by Ed Miliband.

      It is also higher than the 29 percent vote share the Labour Party achieved in the general election of 2010, when it was led by the then incumbent Labour prime minister, Gordon Brown.

      Going back further, Labour’s vote share in earlier general elections was 27.6 percent in 1983; and 30.8 percent in 1987.

      In terms of absolute numbers of votes, Labour in 2019 gained more votes than it did in the general election of 2005 (10,269,076 versus 9,552,436), which Labour won under the leadership of the then incumbent Labour prime minister, Tony Blair.

      The claim that Labour achieved “its worst result since 1935” is based solely on the number of members of parliament (MPs) it returned to the House of Commons following the election that stands at 202.

      This is indeed a historically low figure. However, saying that ignores the fact that Labour had already lost — in the general election of 2015 — 40 of its seats in Scotland, which it could formerly rely upon to reliably return a Labour MP. These 40 seats were lost to the left wing pro-independence Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), not to the Conservatives. The SNP has held on to them ever since.

      Labour has never been able to regain these lost 40 seats, and given the rise of pro-independence sentiment in Scotland it seems increasingly unlikely that it will ever do so.

      Suffice to say that if Labour had retained these 40 seats in 2015, and had it held on to them in the latest general election, its cohort of MPs would now be 242 and not 202. That is significantly more than the 209 MPs it had after the election of 1983.

      Ignorance, or in some cases willful disregard, of the extraordinary political transformation that took place in Scotland in 2015, and which has ever since affected Britain’s electoral and parliamentary arithmetic, seriously distorts discussion of British politics.

    2. PlutoniumKun

      Normally I’d agree – you can’t get away from the reality that if people elect horrible governments, that is at least partly a reflection on genuine choice. Sometimes democracy means you have to accept that ‘the people’ don’t always get it right. In fact ‘the people’ sometimes actively choose horrible people to represent them. Just look at Brazil or India or Hungary.

      But it has to be remembered that the UK electoral system is particularly horrible and is pretty much designed (like the US system) to preserve a duopoly of power which only vaguely represents the real will of the electorate. It includes numerous distortions which essentially gives a very high bias towards parties with localised concentrations of support (which is why the LibDems and Greens end up with far fewer seats than their support really justifies). It is to the shame of the Labour Party that they never changed this when they got the chance – primarily because of (IMO) grossly misjudged belief that the system would one day deliver a genuine left wing government that could do whatever it wanted.

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