British government threatens to renege on Withdrawal Agreement
30 September 2020
“For England, there is no alliance that holds, no treaty which is respected, no truth which matters.”As the negotiations on a post Brexit trade deal between the UK and EU move into a critical period the British government have sought to up the ante by introducing a bill at Westminster that would allow it to renege on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement (WA). A day prior to its introduction the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Brandon Lewis stated quite clearly in the Commons that it would indeed “break international law” though only in “a very specific and limited way”. This statement caused quite a stir. Politicians and commentators were aghast that the government would contemplate such a course of action and risk tarnishing Britain’s reputation as an upholder of law. Of course such a reputation only exists in their mythologised view of the UK rather than in reality. As the quote from Charles de Gaulle at the head of this article indicates - Britain has a long history of duplicity in its dealings with other nations. What caused offence was the bald manner in which it was stated on this occasion.
Charles de Gaulle in his memoirs
Internal Market Bill
As it turned out the provisions of the bill that was published were more far reaching than had been initially claimed. It proposes giving the British government the power to unilaterally alter the sections of the WA that relate to the export of goods from Northern Ireland and to rules around state aid. Although these were the only two specific areas mentioned thus far the provisions of the bill would allow the government to revise other parts of WA and also "any other EU law or international law". Its provisions will have effect "notwithstanding inconsistency or incompatibility with international or other domestic law"while ministers can make regulations which ignore “any other legislation, convention or rule of international or domestic law whatsoever, including any order, judgment or decision of the European court or of any other court or tribunal”. The Internal Market Bill is effectively an enabling act that gives the British government a free hand to renege on any agreements it has entered into.
It also points to the the type of economy that will exist in a post Brexit UK. The main target of the powers created by the Internal Market Bill are the level playing field provisions of the WA that broadly align the UK with the EU in terms of standards related to employment, food production and the environment. While the current focus is on state aid these other areas must be included. Indeed, state aid is a bit of a red herring as it is unlikely that the UK will move towards an economy in which there is greater government support for industry. Talk of a British version of silicon valley or a British space programme is just pie in the sky. What is more likely is a race to the bottom in which the UK seeks an advantage over its rivals through rapid deregulation. The implication of this is an all out assault on the living standards of the British working class.
Although the actions of the British government have raised the prospect of a no deal Brexit it still remains an unlikely outcome because of the damaging economic consequences for both the UK and EU. However, it is not the case that both sides will endure an equal amount of pain. The unequal relationship - in terms of GDP, population size and trade - between the UK and the EU means that the overwhelming share of that pain will fall on the British. The claim by Brexiteers that EU states will come to terms because they need the UK more that the UK needs them, or because a no deal Brexit will be devastating to their economies, is completely bogus. For the EU a no deal outcome would be damaging but for the UK it would be catastrophic. As one EU diplomat is reported as saying:
“Walking away from the table and going for a no deal will hit the UK economy and UK jobs much harder than the EU economy and EU jobs. One wonders whether this is really a negotiation or pure masochism.”The negotiations - ongoing since 2016 - have demonstrated that the UK is more in need of a deal than the EU. A no deal option has always been there as the British were free to walk away at any time. Despite the threats to do so, and the claim that a “no deal was better than a bad deal”, they never contemplated such a move. Indeed, both Theresa May and Boris Johnson signed up to arrangements, such as the “backstop” and the “border down the Irish Sea”, that they had previously vowed never to accept. The problem for the British Conservative party is that such deals can never satisfy the demands of the most ardent Brexiteers or accommodate the bigotry of those sections of the population that form the bedrock of its support base. At the same time they are seeking to promote the interests of a capitalist class and a state apparatus who - while accommodating themselves to some form of Brexit - certainly don’t favour a destabilising rupture with the EU. We see these tensions in the criticisms of the British government’s actions voiced by former Prime Ministers and in the resignations of senior civil servants.
The EU for its part cannot concede on the central tenet of Brexit - which in its most basic form - is a demand for the UK to be able continue to enjoy the benefits of the customs union and the single market without following any of the rules and regulations. To allow this would result in the dissolution of the EU as a political and economic bloc. These irreconcilable positions, combined with the unequal weight of the parties, have produced a repetitive pattern in negotiations of the British making demands that are rebuffed by the EU and then subsequently signing up a deal that falls well short of the Brexit ideal. The material reality of relations between the EU and the UK always prevails over ideology. The same will likely happen again with the threats over reneging on the Withdrawal Agreement giving way to agreement. This is why the EU’s reaction to the British government’s posturing has been relatively restrained - expressing its disapproval but continuing with negotiations.
If the Brexit negotiations have shown the relative weakness of the UK they have shown the absolute weakness of the Irish state. The prospect of a no deal has sent the Irish political class into shock. Taoiseach Micheal Martin claimed that the threat by the British to breach international law was “a new departure” while Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney described the developments in London as “an extraordinary change in approach from the UK government”. Former Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also expressed his shock at such a turn of events:
“Britain is an honest, honourable country full of honest people, it’s the country of the Magna Carta, the country that helped defend parliamentary democracy, it’s not a rogue state.”But he contradicted himself soon after by recalling the negotiations of last year in which “the strategy and behaviour of the British government was one of brinkmanship, was one of threatening to crash out, ‘if we don’t get an agreement we might go kamikaze on you’, that sort of thing.” What he didn’t recall was his own role in those negotiations when he gave up the “Irish Backstop” for the much weaker “Northern Ireland Protocol”.
In these statements Irish political leaders are displaying great naivety - or more likely thorough dishonesty - in their assessment of Britain’s honourable intentions towards Ireland. A cursory examination of Irish history would easily disprove this. But we don’t even have to look back on history. All the way through the current negotiations Britain has played up8 the potentially ruinous consequences of Brexit for Ireland as a means to exert pressure and win concessions from the EU. Indeed, Boris Johnson could only have been encouraged by his last direct engagement with the Irish government which resulted in the removal of the backstop. However, the strategy of squeezing Ireland has its limits. Ultimately it is the EU - and the dominant member states such as Germany and France - who will determine the position the bloc takes and decide what is acceptable in terms of an agreement with the UK. In that the overriding priority will be the integrity of the internal market and customs union not the Irish economy. If there is a no deal the EU will enforce its rules and regulations and there will be a hard border across Ireland.
The reaction of political parties in the north has centred around the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and whether the provisions in the Internal Market Bill would constitute a breach. Sinn Fein and the SDLP argue that the GFA offers some defence against Brexit but can’t point to anything in the document that touches on trade or market regulation. All that they offer is some vague notion that EU membership was blurring out the border and, by implication, pointing towards a united Ireland. A no deal Brexit that results in the appearance of vehicle inspection depots and customs posts would shatter that illusion. It would also dispel the accompanying and contradictory myth that Brexit has created a new impetus for Irish unity. The reality is that the dynamics of Brexit tend towards a strengthening of partition.
The GFA, while often referenced as an international treaty, carries little weight. Parts of it (such as the proposed Bill of Rights) were never implemented and it has also been significantly revised by subsequent agreements. That it can be cited by the DUP as a argument against the proposed border in the Irish Sea really shows how threadbare the GFA has become. What makes this particularly ludicrous is the fact that the DUP opposed the GFA and supported Brexit! The reality is that the northern parties are desperately latching on to anything to make their case. That they are reduced to this highlights their lack of political influence. This is seen most starkly with the DUP who have gone from king maker at Westminster to bit player. While the party is supporting the Internal Market Bill it had no role in its formulation. Just a week before the introduction of the Bill the DUP leader Arlene Foster conceded that unionists had to work within the Withdrawal Agreement and “recognise that that is the reality now". Another illustration of the power relationship between the British government and unionists came over the construction of checking facilities at northern ports when a instruction by a DUP minister to halt work was reversed after an intervention by London.
Despite the talking up of a no deal Brexit such an outcome still remains unlikely. The evidence - such as the example above - is that the British are continuing with preparations to operate the Withdrawal Agreement. While there may be some minor adjustments - which will be hailed a victory for Boris Johnson - the substantive elements of the Agreement will remain in place.
Although the WA provides a framework for future trade between the EU and UK it is not a trade deal in itself, and given the differences between the parties, it is unlikely that there will be a comprehensive trade agreement in place by the end of the year. What is more likely to emerge is a bare bones agreement under which the UK continues to follow EU regulations in a number of essential areas such as food and medicines, and also in some industrial sectors, but with trade in all other goods and services conducted under WTO rules. While this avoids the massive disruption of a no deal it is still a hard version of Brexit which will see the introduction of tariffs and regulatory checks. It will also have a depressing economic effect that will be felt most acutely in Ireland due to the dependence of its indigenous economy on the GB market.
The experience of Brexit demonstrates the delusion of nationalistic projects in the era of increasing economic integration. These are trends that can’t be overturned by a vote or an appeal to ideology. The “ideal” of Brexit has been impossible to achieve because it has constantly come into conflict with this material reality. But if Brexit is a failure of British nationalism it also represents a failure on the part of an EU which has proved incapable of creating a unified political and economic structure for Europe.
In this situation the working class must take an independent position which neither retreats into a form of nationalism or holds illusions in the progressive character of the EU. The integration of European economies and states should be supported by the workers movement because it contains within it the potential of a unified working class and the foundations of a future socialist society. However, such a future can only be realised if workers as a class are contesting to guide that process of integration. It will not come about under the the leadership of the capitalist class. This is why the historic slogan of a “United Socialist Europe“ retains such relevance today.