By Arab News
By Chris Doyle*
Over the last five years, Britain has lurched into chaotic fits and starts, peppered with outrage and rancor over its leaving of the EU. At no stage was the road ahead smooth and straight. Back in January, in those halcyon days before the coronavirus disease’s arrival on British shores, one hope was perhaps that, with a withdrawal agreement signed and a stable pro-Brexit government in place, a measure of calm progress would be possible and a free trade agreement would be reached by the end of the year.
If only. Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s administration ruled out seeking any extension for talks, which would have been fully justified given the massive drawdown of resources to combat the pandemic. The negotiations have lurched everywhere but forward.
However, the most potent hand grenade thrown into the china shop was the Internal Market Bill — a means to ride roughshod over the very agreement Johnson so proudly signed with the EU. Ahead of last December’s general election, Johnson toured the country proudly promoting his flagship “oven-ready” deal, which would lead to “a new chapter in our nation’s history” in some epochal transformation of the nation’s fortunes. Except that, nine months later, this deal metamorphosed into yet another unfair surrender document that risked EU imperial control over the UK. Johnson accused the EU of threatening to impose a “blockade” on the country because it had not yet been added to the EU food safety list as an approved third country. He claims the EU wants all goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland to have tariffs added despite being part of the same country.
Think about it. Britain is threatening to rip up an internationally agreed deal. The Northern Ireland secretary told the House of Commons the new bill will “break international law.”
Even for a government that illegally suspended Parliament last year; many of whose leading lights had led a Vote Leave campaign that violated election law; and who had slammed Law Lords and the Supreme Court, this was incendiary. It provoked naked fury from senior Tories, including former leaders William Hague, Michael Howard, Theresa May and John Major. Many backbenchers were also fuming.
Breaking the law was too much for many legal officials. The chief legal officer for Scotland resigned, as did the head of the Government Legal Department. Leading human rights lawyer Amal Clooney quit her role as the UK’s special envoy on media freedom. And the former Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, a Brexiteer, also opposed it.
It also reverberated across the Atlantic. Senior Democrats Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi reiterated with crystal clarity their support for the Good Friday Agreement. Biden tweeted: “We can’t allow the Good Friday Agreement that brought peace to Northern Ireland to become a casualty of Brexit.”
How should the EU react? Johnson’s antics are no longer novel and met a near-unified, solid response. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen described the bill as a “distraction” but also a “very unpleasant surprise. I am still convinced it can be done. It is better not to have this distraction questioning an existing international agreement that we have, but to focus on getting this deal done, this agreement done — and time is short.”
The likelihood is that this is a mischievous ploy designed to shake things up in the last stretch of negotiations. Johnson has already reportedly backed down and agreed to an amendment to the Internal Market Bill. He may have to go further.
One has to wonder whether the whiz-kids in Downing Street really do see their disruption tactics as effective. One Brexiteer Tory politician told me: “It is like they get a kick out of it in No. 10. Our international reputation means zilch to these guys. This government should be hell-bent on a world-class free trade deal but instead it appears to be playing chicken with the EU. Baiting Brussels may be fun for some but not the mark of a responsible government.”
The British Parliament is in hibernation, lacking its usual verve and raucous feistiness due to COVID-19 restrictions. Only 50 MPs can be in the chamber at any one time, making for a toothless series of exchanges, devoid of atmosphere or interest. This sepulchral feel divests elected politicians of any real capability to hold the government to account.
The last month of talks with the EU will be fraught. Despite the rhetoric, both sides want some form of deal. But one thing we can be sure of is that Brussels will insist it is a sacrosanct commitment and not a vague promise.
Even so, huge damage has been done. Perhaps undeservedly on occasions, Britain has had a reputation as a party that promotes and values international laws and agreements. After all, ministers preach this to other countries almost daily. It is the bedrock of the UK’s position on the Iran nuclear deal — that parties should not walk out of a signed international agreement.
Having mishandled COVID-19 and stumbled through Brexit, the world is starting to rework the thumbnail sketch of Britain, from being a rational actor on the world stage to a problematic, irrational one.
The likelihood is that this is a passing phase. Johnson’s histrionics have largely backfired. The fundamentals of British institutions and rule of law, which arch-Brexiteers love to hate, remain strong, if under frequent attack.
The Tory divisions are now centered on Johnson and whether his approach is worth the price. On one level, Johnson is comfortable with an 80-seat majority, but the opinion polls are heading down. Before long, he may have to pay a heavy price to save his job, perhaps the head of his Machiavellian chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, who is widely detested both within the party and the country.
To offset this, Johnson needs some big scores. A shaft of light this month came from the Far East with a UK-Japan trade deal. An agreement with the world’s third-largest economy is not to be sniffed at, but other agreements need to follow. The chief one will be any US free trade deal, but progress here has been slow owing to COVID-19 and the upcoming presidential election.
Britain needs a deal with the EU now more than ever. It is time for a composed, rational approach, with both sides treating the other with respect. The populist pantomime needs to be replaced with responsible deal-making.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding.