John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

THE DIFFICULTIES WITH THE NEW UK BACKSTOP PROPOSALS

There is, at last, some movement in the Brexit negotiation.

On the UK side, Boris Johnson previously insisted on the Irish backstop being scrapped. Now he is making proposals (unacceptable so far to the EU) to rewrite it.

On the EU side, there is a movement too.

 The present Agreement contains a backstop to cover the whole UK. Now the EU is apparently willing to contemplate a backstop confined to Northern Ireland (NI) alone. This is a step backward for Ireland.  An “NI only” backstop would not protect Irish trade with Britain which is more valuable than trade across the border with NI.

Why are the new UK proposals for an NI only backstop unacceptable so far to the EU?

It is hard to give a complete answer to this question because the UK has insisted that its legal text for the new backstop remain confidential. This is a pity because any such text could benefit from constructive criticism from outside the narrow confines of the UK negotiation team and the Article 50 Task Force.

The only thing we have to go on is an Explanatory note published by the UK Government.

The note says the UK Government wants to uphold the Belfast Agreement of 1998. This Agreement was made in good faith by the then Irish government, on the basis of joint Irish and British membership of the EU Single Market, which had come into force only five years earlier in 1993, and had removed trade barriers between the two parts of Ireland.

 If there was at that time any possibility of the UK ever withdrawing from the Single Market, it would have been for the UK side to have brought that up in the negotiations. Neither the then UK government, nor the Tory Opposition, did so.

  If they had, there would probably have been no Belfast Agreement.

This is because the Belfast Agreement is all about convergence between North and South, as well as convergence between Ireland and Britain.  In contrast, Brexit inevitably is about divergence between North and South, AND divergence between Britain and Ireland. At a fundamental level they are incompatible. 

While everybody may now be acting in full good faith, there is also the issue for the EU of the structural reliability of the UK as a negotiating partner. 

 A Conservative government, with a parliamentary majority, signed a joint paper with the EU, committing it to protect the Belfast Agreement and to avoid border controls.  Now another Conservative government, in the same Parliament but now without a majority, wants to renege on that. 

UK public opinion sees no problem with this, but it is difficult for the EU. The EU would be setting a precedent for future negotiations, with the UK and with others. 

The latest UK proposals would align the regulatory standards for goods in NI, with EU standards. This is a welcome move, but it would mean new controls, between NI and Britain, to check compliance with EU standards. On the other hand it would remove the need for controls, for this particular purpose, at the land border in Ireland.

 But the proposals completely ignore tariffs there will be between the EU and UK. Once the transition period is over, imports from the UK will have to pay EU tariffs, which are quite high for some products, particularly agricultural ones. 

These tariffs will have to be collected at or near the land border in Ireland. The proposal to align NI and EU regulatory standards for goods does not solve that problem of tariffs on those same goods. 

The collection of these tariffs at or near the border will be highly contentious, although it will be absolutely necessary if Ireland is to remain in the EU. 

 If , in future, the UK  makes a trade agreements with a third country (say the US), and has to make concessions on either tariffs or goods standards to get these agreements, there would  then have to be additional or wider controls. These wider controls would be the land border for tariffs, and between NI and UK for standards.

 This problem would get steadily worse as time goes on. Boris Johnson has said that the UK will deliberately diverge from EU labour, environmental and product standards and will be making many concessions in his trade deals, so the scope and scale of the controls will become greater all the time.

 These will be either on the land border, or on the Irish Sea. Both go against the convergence goals of the Belfast Agreement. 

The new UK proposals envisage a system of notifications to prevent prohibited products entering the EU and for the collection of VAT. It remains to be seen if these can be rendered compatible with the EU Customs code, which envisages the tariff, tax, and quality status of goods being checked at the same place, at a customs post on the border.

 I expect the Article 50 Task force are now subjecting these UK proposals to forensic examination. They will ensure that Ireland’s status as a fully compliant part of the EU Single Market is not put in doubt and that the VAT is collected.  

The entire UK package would create dangerous new opportunities for smuggling, and smuggling is often used to finance political terrorism and mafia practices. 

The UK proposals are conditional on “Consent” in Northern Ireland to adherence to EU goods and food standards and to the Single Electricity Market.

 They would not to come into effect, without the consent of the NI Executive and Assembly. This consent would have to be renewed every four years. 

 The NI Assembly nowadays seems incapable of meeting, let alone of making decisions, so I do not think the EU being happy to delegate the future of any hard won compromise it makes with the UK to it. It would be giving a regional body, in a non EU state, a power to obviate an Agreement into which the EU would have entered in good faith every four years. We must not forget that the NI Assembly operates on the basis of a “petition of concern” whereby, a minority ( 30 out of 90)  of members in the Assembly, could block consent to deal . 

This  NI “consent” provision is to be inserted into the heart of what one hopes will to be a balanced, and hard fought, overall deal between the UK and the EU. I cannot see the EU agreeing to  all this being subject to the ongoing vagaries of NI politics. 

THE HALLIGAN LECTURE

Ambassador Declan Kelleher and members of the committee of the Brussels branch of the IIEA at the Halligan lecture.

………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………………..

BRENDAN HALLIGAN

I would like to start by saying a few words about the man in whose honour tonight’s lecture is being held, Brendan Halligan .

 Brendan is the founder of the Institute.

 He could see, back in 1989, when he and a few friends came together to found this Institute, that the European Union was developing fast and that Ireland needed to be an informed participant in European debates, including on issues of no apparent direct interest to our island, on the western edge of the continent. 

As he saw it, it was only by understanding the problems of others and contributing intelligently to solving them, that Ireland itself could make sure it got a good hearing in Europe when it needed it.

Prior to founding the IIEA, Brendan had been from 1967 a very effective General Secretary of the Labour Party, attracting many bright people of his generation into that party.

He became a member of the European Parliament in 1983, and in 1984 was one of the MEPs who voted for the Spinelli Report which called for Federal Union in Europe. This stance earned him severe reproofs from some more cautious elements in his own party but he held his ground.

Brendan is much influenced be  Altiero Spinelli, like him a man of the Left , and colleague in the European Parliament, and I understand from one of the co founders of the IIEA, Tony Brown, that Brendan modelled the IIEA on the  equivalent Italian Institute that Spinelli had founded.

In addition to all this, Brendan has been a successful businessman, chairing Bord na Mona for ten years, and he continues to work actively for the development of  renewable energy, a matter of ever increasing urgency.

THE THEME OF THIS LECTURE

 The EU is a treaty based organisation.

 States are entitled to withdraw from treaties.

 But they are not entitled to so in a way that nullifies the value of other treaties that still bind them. They are obliged to take account of the effect of their withdrawal on neighbouring states.

The UK is still bound by the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and the Anglo Irish Treaty that underpins it.  

Brexit, in the extreme form contemplated by the current UK government (no customs union and no single market), poses an existential threat to the Belfast Agreement. 

 Mrs May tried to face up to that contradiction. Her successor, Boris Johnson so far refuses to do so.

The Brexit saga will eventually come to an end, somehow or other, and the EU, with or without Britain, will have to face other challenges.

 Later on in this address, I will say a few words about these challenges. Notwithstanding its preoccupation with Brexit, Ireland must adopt a proactive approach to all these issues, in its own interests, and in those of the EU.

BREXIT……THE KEY PARAGRAPH IN PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S RECENT LETTER TO EU HEADS OF GOVERNMENT

 Mr Johnson told his fellow Presidents and Prime Ministers 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

DIVERGENCE FOR ITS OWN SAKE

This is the most revealing paragraph of HIS entire letter to his fellow leaders

The point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards. 

 This  would mean, in the absence of the Irish  backstop, that Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards  will continuously, and progressively over time, diverge further and further away from those of Ireland (as a  continuing member of the EU) and of the rest of Europe. 

 Significantly, although it has been promoting Brexit for years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

 Most Brexit supporters would have difficulty naming one EU based law that has had an adverse effect on their lives.

It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude from Mr Johnson’s letter, that divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK wants. That was not the approach of the May government. 

It is important to tease this out. Prime Minister Johnson has said he is committed to the” letter and the spirit” of the Belfast Agreement.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between  Mr Johnson’s proclaimed commitment to the Belfast Agreement , and his commitment that the UK will progressively and intentionally diverge from EU standards.

The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be. 

 On day one, relatively few border controls may be necessary. 

But, by day one thousand and one, after the deliberate divergence had been done by the UK, far more border controls will be necessary.

By day two thousand and one, in about six years from now, the UK rules and tariffs will have diverged even further from EU ones, and even greater barriers and controls will  then be needed between North and South in Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain. 

Nobody knows for sure which present rules or tariffs a future UK, government might change and in what direction.

 It is because of this complete uncertainty about the future direction of UK policy that the issue of North/South relations in Ireland, and the compatibility of Brexit with the Belfast Agreement, HAD to be settled upfront, in the Withdrawal Treaty. 

Hence the backstop. 

Leaving all this over until the wider trade negotiation with the UK, if one is ever concluded and ratified, might have meant that the UK government would never have faced up to the issue. The incompatibility, between the form of Brexit it has chosen and the Belfast Agreement , might have continued to be ignored by UK negotiators. 

They would probably have tried to agree everything else, and to leave the inconvenient “Irish problem” off to the very end of the negotiation, in the hope of isolating Ireland.

 The issue had to be faced, sooner or later. 

It is hard ,and not without risk, to put it to the test now, but it is much less risky than leaving it over until everything else is settled..

THE UK NEGOTIATING STYLE

A backstop to cover the whole UK, including Northern Ireland, is what is contained in the existing Withdrawal Agreement. 

This was requested by the UK but it is the best outcome for Ireland, because East/West trade supports even more jobs in Ireland, than does North/South trade, although both are very important. 

For the EU, at this very late stage, to contemplate reverting to a Northern Ireland only backstop would be a significant concession for the EU to make, and potentially a costly one for Irish exporters to Britain.

 But does the UK see that ?  I do not think so.

When concessions are made to the UK in EU negotiations, they are often not recognised by the UK as concessions, and are often just pocketed without a word, and becoming a platform for another demand.

 Look at how the UK negotiated on Justice and Home Affairs in the Lisbon Treaty.

 Look at the way the” renegotiation” concessions to David Cameron in 2016 were ignored in the subsequent UK Referendum debate.

 In fact some of those concessions would have been damaging to the EU and it is good that they are gone.. 

Exempting the UK from the commitment to ever closer union of the peoples of Europe would have been used as a precedent by populists in other states, and the suggested “Red Card”  would have gummed up the EU legislative process, making the completion of the Single Market more difficult.

HOW BREXIT WAS DECIDED….THE MEANING OF DEMOCRACY

Brexit arose from a referendum in the UK in 2016, in which the larger populations in England and Wales were able to outvote the smaller populations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who favoured remain.

There are two democratic principles at play here, consent, and respect for minorities.

 Mr Johnson’s own letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights” and to “consent”

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit.. One of the fundaments of democracy is that governance should have the consent of the governed.

 The people of Northern Ireland have not “consented” to Brexit, or to the new barriers, controls, and costly bureaucracy that flow from it.

 And one of the fundaments of a successful union between different nations is a decision making process that shows respect for minorities and smaller nations.

The process by which Brexit was decided in the UK did not pass these tests.

As any football fan knows , the UK encompassed four nations,

 England,

 Scotland,

 Wales and 

Northern Ireland.

 Brexit had the consent of the voters of England and Wales, but it did not have the consent of the voters of Northern Ireland, nor of Scotland. 

The purely majoritarian Referendum allowed two of the UK’s nations to overrule the other two. That would  not happen in our European Union.

Brexit, no matter what way it may now be implemented, will change the status of Northern Ireland, and will do so without the consent of the people living in Northern Ireland. 

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

 In his recent letter to his fellow EU Heads of Government, Prime Minister Johnson claimed that the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

 All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the sovereignty of a state primarily consists in its having a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. The backstop does not diminish UK sovereignty in that way. 

By joining the EU in 1973, the UK agreed to pool aspects of its sovereign rule making authority with other EU member states. It entered into a succession of EU Treaties on that basis.

 While  it was always possible  in international law for the UK  to renounce these Treaty commitments, as it is now doing,  the UK was, and is, obliged to take proper account of the effect  this has on other parties to the Treaty.

After all, these other EU states, including Ireland, acted in good faith on the basis that these shared EU Treaty commitments would continue to be adhered to by the UK.  Ireland acted on that assumption when it changed its constitution to facilitate the Belfast Agreement it made with the UK in 1998. 

It is the UK that is now taking the initiative to renounce the EU Treaties, so it is for the UK to take the primary responsibility for finding a way to reconcile that renunciation with the other Treaty commitments it has made, notably  its legal Agreement made in Belfast in 1998.

That is how international relations work, and why renouncing Treaty commitments is a rare occurrence. 

Unfortunately, the UK never faced up to that responsibility.

 That was a failure of statecraft on the part of the UK, and of the UK alone.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RULES IN INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE

Adhering to Treaty commitments is usually in a state’s self interest. 

This is because, in international commerce, rules are important. That is a commercial and political reality.

 Without shared rules or understandings, commerce would be impossible.

 The EU is an engine for

  •  making rules democratically,
  •  enforcing them consistently and
  •  interpreting them uniformly.

 I do not think these realities of international commerce were explained to the UK electorate by their leaders over the last 40 years, which is why the English and Welsh electorate fell for the Brexit delusion.. 

Mr Johnson claimed in his letter

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon, nor requires, a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

That is true, but disingenous.

 At the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime….that of the EU.

 That was taken for granted, and did not have to be made explicit in the Agreement. In any event in 1998, if there was in fact a possibility of the UK leaving the EU, it would have been the responsibility of the UK to have brought that up in the Good Friday negotiations.

 It did not do so, and, to the best of my knowledge, the Conservative official opposition,  did not bring it up either.

 If they had done so, it would have been a very different negotiation. 

Prime Minister Johnson goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strangely vague  statement to make, barely a month away from the 31 October deadline.  No solid proposal, just “possibilities” and “explorations”. Not good enough,

I now need to pose the following two questions.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO CREATE NEW OPPORTUNITIES FOR SMUGGLING AND THE ACTIVITIES FINANCED BY IT?

DOES HE WANT TO UNDERMINE THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

He seems to want the EU to legally bind itself not to enforce its own rules at its own borders.

If neither side enforce their rules, this will create want a “no man’s land” in the vicinity of the Irish border, where no controls or checks would apply.

 This is an open invitation to criminal and subversive organisations, who have financed themselves in the past by smuggling.

 Brexit will create a whole new set of opportunities for smuggling and consequently for the financing of subversive organisations

 Given that one such, smuggling financed , criminal organisation attempted to murder one of his predecessors as Conservative leader, one would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has not studied the history of his party closely enough.

At the moment, the only products where there are big price differences on either side of the border are fuel ,alcohol and tobacco. And there are huge revenue losses to legitimate traders and to the state on both sides of the border because of highly organised smuggling by criminal organisations. I reckon the losses are as much as £200 million, without Brexit.

Imagine what it will be like after a hard Brexit, in the absence of a backstop. 

There will be hundreds of new products where there will be progressively ever greater price differences on either side of the Irish border, due to different rates of tariff and different standards. A whole new set of opportunities for smugglers will thus be created, on top of the opportunities they are already exploiting. 

The opportunities for smugglers will  probably be trebled, thanks to a UK policy of deliberate divergence from the EU, in the event a hard Brexit without a backstop.

It would be downright irresponsible, in last weeks before this fateful decision may be made, to fail to highlight these foreseeable consequences of a hard Brexit.

Of course the smugglers are criminals, and they must be treated as such. But to counter them, the burden placed on policing services on either side of the border will increase exponentially, and  scare police resources will have to be diverted from dealing with conventional crime.

 For a UK government to go out of its way to create new opportunities for smugglers by insisting, on the basis of some high principle of not having an Irish backstop, is irresponsible. This is a truth that must be stated..

WHY CHECKS ARE NEEDED TO PROTECT THE SINGLE MARKET

To sum up, in the event of Brexit without a backstop,controls  and checks on the goods and services that may cross EU borders will be essential . 

This is because

 +  the UK has said it will to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs,  and/or different quality standards for goods and services to the ones applied by EU, and

+  the UK has decided it will  increasingly diverge from EU environmental , product, and labour standards.

If it fails to protect its Single Market, the EU will not be able to continue to lead the world in setting higher standards to protect the climate, and to protect the privacy of the data of its citizens.

 That is why the EU cannot allow its nearest neighbour, and recently departed member, to undercut its standards with impunity.

The requirements to be fulfilled by Ireland, as part of the EU Customs territory, at its borders and its ports, are set out  clearly and in immense detail in the EU Customs Code.

 The Code was adopted in October 1992 by Council Regulation 2913/92, with full UK participation. 

 It requires the uniform application of the Code across the entire customs territory of the EU.

The UK knows full well what Ireland will be legally obliged to do as a continuing member of the Single Market and Customs Union.The fact that Mr Johnson has invited the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that he would like to the EU to dissolve itself altogether !

THE SINGLE MARKET

We must defend the integrity of the EU Single Market, at the borders of the European Union and throughout its territory. 

Ireland must be seen to be, fully compliant with EU Single Market rules. Otherwise Ireland’s geographic position will be used against it by competitors for the investment.

The EU Single Market is not complete. There is much more to do.

An April 2019 Study “Mapping the Cost of non Europe” estimated that 

    + completing the  classic single market would add  713 billion euros to the EU economy. 

    + completing Economic and Monetary Union would add a further 322 billion, and    

    + completing a digital single market a further  178 billion euros. 

 A more integrated energy market would save a further 231 billion and a more integrated EU approach to fighting organised crime would be worth 82 billion.

 Cross border VAT fraud is costing 40 billion.

These are some of the reasons why we must complete the Single Market.

Services account for three quarters of EU GDP. 

 But  we have been very slow in creating a single EU market for services. 

 In the field of Services, only one legislative proposal had been adopted during the term of the outgoing Commission, a proportionality test for new regulations on professions.

 All other proposals are blocked.

 I think that a major obstacle is vested interests in national or regional governments, who do not want to give up power.

By completing the Single Market, the EU can show that it has much more to offer to the world than a post Brexit Britain.

 The European “Single Market on the Liffey” can and will deliver more consumer benefits than “Singapore on  the Thames” .

To help complete the Single Market, Ireland should be open to qualified majority voting on energy and climate matters. 

We should also be open to carefully defined individual amendments to the EU Treaties if they can be shown to the public to deliver real benefits.

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

The existing Withdrawal Agreement protects UK environmental, product and labour standards, in a way that a mere Trade Agreement will never do.

 In any trade negotiation with a post Brexit Britain, maintaining a level  competitive playing field will be vital.

 No subsidies, no cartels, and no undercutting of EU standards must be insisted upon.

A CLIMATE TARIFF?

President Elect Von der Leyen has suggested a border Adjustment tax to penalise imports that have been produced at the cost of excessive carbon emissions. 

The intellectual argument for such a tax is a good one, but it will be provocative in the present fraught international trade atmosphere.

 Perhaps an adjustment of the VAT rate to take account of the emissions intensity of various products could be designed. It could be applied to domestic as well as imported products and services of all kinds.

 It would be more comprehensive than a Carbon Tax and would put the EU in the lead in the battle against climate change.

THE RISE OF CHINA

China is returning to the dominant position it held in the world economy in the two millennia up to 1800.

 It is doing this on the strength of its human capital, not its physical capital. It is educating more engineers that the US and the EU combined.

 It is doing it through its competitive and  innovative firms, not through its monopolistic state enterprises.

 It is ahead of everyone in 5G communications, at the time the world economy is becoming ever more digital.

 If the US thinks it can use trade policy to arrest Chinese development, it is probably making a mistake. 

But the US is right to insist on fair competition. China must be treated in the WTO as a developed country, and not get concessions intended for much poorer countries.

In its response to the Chinese challenge, the EU should maintain its robust competition policy and should not try to pick industrial winners from Brussels.

Europe would be much better placed to defend its own interests, and to act as a balancing power in the world, if the euro functioned as a global reserve currency.

 To achieve that, we need to create a Capital Markets Union and complete the Banking Union. 

The Eurozone must have a capacity to cope with localized shocks and to prevent contagion.  We need viable proposals for a eurozone wide reinsurance of bank deposits, and eurozone wide reinsurance of the unemployment  benefit systems of member states..

CYBERSECURITY

Global trade disputes are becoming increasing entangled with arguments about security. 

The EU is not a military power. But it does have interests to defend, notably in the field of cybersecurity.

 Ireland’s island status may have inured it against conventional military threats, but  it offers no protection against cyber attacks. 

The European Network for Information Security should have active Irish participation.

 The EU must develop joint capabilities to counter cyber attacks.

THE RULE OF LAW

There is an erosion of the basic tenets of the rule of law in some EU member states.

This takes two forms…a weakening of the separation between the judiciary and the executive, and a weakening in the effective administration of justice.

 We cannot contemplate taking in new member states until we are satisfied we can have full confidence in the rule of law in all existing members.

 The Commission must be non partisan and objective in pursuing member states that are falling below acceptable standards in respect of the rule of law.

The European Court of Justice is the place where the rule of law can best be vindicated.

 The Commissioner for Justice should show neither fear nor favour in making proposals for remedial action. 

He should have the sole right to make such proposals, should do so publicly, and while the College should be free not to accept his proposal, it should have to publish its reasons. 

EU WIDE DEMOCRACY

 It is over 40 years since the first European Parliament election.

 While the  EP elections are hotly contested, the contests are often really about national issues.

 A genuine EU wide debate does not take place, because the elections are confined within in national constituencies. An EU “polis” or public opinion has not been created.

In her political guidelines for the 2019-2024 Commission, President elect Von der Leyen commits to strengthening EU democracy. 

She says she wants to strengthen the Spitzenkandidat system, and to address the issue of transnational lists in European Elections.  I hope she is true to her word.

My own view is that the President of the Commission should be elected separately from the Parliament, using a system of proportional representation (PR). 

 The Spitdenkandidat system failed for many reasons, not least the fact that it was to be a winner take all contest without any proportional element to reflect the preferences of the whole electorate.

It will be possible to introduce transnational list without reducing the number of MEPs elected on a national basis. So it should be done.

I have doubts about the idea of giving a right of legislative initiate to the European Parliament because it will upset the institutional balance of the EU

CONCLUSION

As you can see, we have a very busy few years in front of us in the EU.

As Greece was for many years, Ireland may soon be cut off  from the rest of the EU by the territory of a non member. We will be a frontier state, never a comfortable position in international relations. 

We will need to work harder than ever before to overcome the barriers that may be placed in our way.

 We will need our network of friends around  the world more than ever before, and that is why the Brussels branch of the IIEA will be more important than ever before!

We will also need to be assertive in protecting our interests, but to do so in the context of a strong pro European philosophy.

Thank you!

BREXIT AND THE BELFAST AGREEMENT

…….DIVERGENCE vs CONVERGENCE

Brexit is about divergence between the two parts of Ireland, between Ireland and Britain, and between Britain and Europe.

 The debate about Brexit has also contributed to increased policy divergence between the representatives of the two traditional communities in Northern Ireland. It has deepened the divide. Thankfully, the Alliance Party and its Leader, Naomi Long MEP, are providing a voice for those who want a new way forward, freed from the constraining categories of the past.

 Whereas Brexit is about divergence, the Belfast Agreement of 1998, negotiated so painstakingly between the Irish and UK governments, and between the parties in Northern Ireland, was about convergence…….  convergence between the two communities in Northern Ireland, convergence between the two parts of Ireland, and convergence between Ireland and Britain.

 It was supported at the time by both the EU and the US and endorsed by referenda in both parts of Ireland. Ireland changed its constitution by referendum in 1998 to accommodate it, no minor matter.

Brexit arose from a referendum in the UK in 2016, in which the larger populations in England and Wales were able to outvote the smaller populations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who favoured remain.

One of the fundaments of democracy is that governance should have the consent of the governed. One of the fundaments of a successful of different nations, as the EU has shown, is respect for minorities and smaller nations.

 Brexit had the consent of the voters of England and Wales, in the 2016 Referendum, but it did not have the consent of the voters of Northern Ireland, nor of Scotland. 

It could be said that Brexit, no matter what way it may now  be implemented, will change the status of Northern Ireland, and will do so without the consent of the people living in Northern Ireland.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

 In his recent letter to his fellow EU Heads of Government, Prime Minister Johnson claimed that the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

 All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the sovereignty of a state primarily consists in a state having a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. The backstop does not diminish UK sovereignty in that understanding of sovereignty. 

By joining the EU in 1973, the UK agreed to pool other aspects of its rule making authority in some other specified areas of life, with other EU member states. It entered into a succession of EU Treaties on that basis.

 While  it was always open  in international law to the UK , to renounce these Treaty commitments, as it is now doing,  the UK was, and is, obliged to take proper account of the effect of the effect of such a decision on its fellow member states of the EU.

After all, these other EU states, including Ireland, acted  in good faith on the basis that these shared Treaty commitments would continue to be honoured by the UK.  Ireland acted on that legitimate assumption when it changed its constitution to facilitate the Belfast Agreement it made with the UK in 1998. 

As it is the UK that is taking the initiative to renounce the EU Treaties it has with Ireland and other EU states, it is for the UK to take the primary responsibility for finding a way to reconcile that initiative with other Treaty commitments of the UK , notably  its legal Agreement made in Belfast in 1998.That is how international relations work and why renouncing Treaty commitments is a rare occurrence. 

Unfortunately, the UK never faced up to that responsibility.

 And it was the EU side that had to come up with a proposal to do this, the so called Irish backstop.

 The EU would never have had to do this if the UK had faced up openly to its responsibilities under the Belfast Agreement, when it started to promote the idea of Brexit . That was a deep failure of statecraft on the part of the UK, and of the UK alone.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RULES IN INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE

Adhering to Treaty commitments is usually in a state’s self interest. 

This is because, in international commerce, rules are important. That is a commercial and political reality.

 Without shared rules or understandings, commerce would be impossible.

 The EU is an engine for

  •  making rules democratically,
  •  enforcing them consistently and
  •  interpreting them uniformly.

 I do not think these realities of international commerce were explained to the UK electorate by their leaders over the last 40 years, which is why the English and Welsh electorate fell for the Brexit delusion.. 

WHAT IS  PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND AS A RESULT OF BREXIT?

Mr Johnson’s letter to his fellow EU leaders said

“ Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.”

He continued

“ I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

These are fine words. But they lack specific content. 

So far Mr Johnson’s government has not spelled  out , in detail and on paper

+ what  these “unique challenges” are,

+ how it believes these can be met and

+ what his government  is prepared to do to that end.

Any ideas the UK may now  have are being held back as a negotiating tactic. 

That is NOT a good faith approach to international relations.

THE KEY PARAGRAPH IN PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S LETTER

Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This  would mean, in the absence of a backstop, Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards  will continuously, and progressively over time, diverge further and further away from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU). 

 Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK   now seems to want, according to Mr Johnson. That was not the approach of the May government. 

The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be. The more the UK rules diverge, the bigger the barriers will have to be.

 On day one, relatively few border controls may be necessary. But, by day one thousand and one, after the deliberate divergence had been done by the UK, far more border controls will be necessary.

Nobody knows what rules this, or a future UK, government will change and in what direction. That is why the issue of the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland HAS to be settled upfront, in the Withdrawal Treaty. Hence the backstop.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between  Mr Johnson’s proclaimed commitment to the Belfast Agreement , and his commitment that the UK progressively and intentionally diverging from EU standards.

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes this clear, “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and  according to Mr Johnson this divergence is “central to our future (British) democracy”. 

Prime Minister Johnson said

“ the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

 But it is Brexit ,of its very nature,  that upsets that balance. 

Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls or barriers of some kind between those jurisdictions.

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights” and to “consent”

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit..

 The people of Northern Ireland have not “consented” to Brexit, or to the new barriers, controls, and costly bureaucracy that flow from it.

Mr Johnson says

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

 But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime.

 That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

 If Brexit was a possibility in 1998, it would have been a UK responsibility to have brought  up the compatibility of the Agreement with a possible UK EU departure. 

There is no evidence that either the UK government, or the Conservative official opposition, raised this possibility in 1998.

Prime Minister Johnson goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strangely vague and dreamy sentiment for the champion of Brexit  to express, when we are barely a month away from the 31 October deadline. There is no solid proposal, just possibilities and explorations. Not enough at this stage from a responsible sovereign government.

I now need to pose the following question.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO BREAK UP THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

He seems to want the EU to legally bind itself not to enforce its rules at its borders.

He   thus seems to want some sort of “no man’s land” in the vicinity of the Irish border where no controls or checks would apply.

 This is an open invitation to criminal and subversive organisations, who have financed themselves in the past by smuggling.

 Given that one such, smuggling financed , criminal organisation attempted to murder one of his predecessors as Conservative leader, one would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has not studied the history of his party closely enough.

Controls on the goods and services ,that may cross its borders, are essential to the EU Single Market. 

Such controls are especially necessary because

 +  the UK has decided to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs, or different quality standards for goods and services to the ones applied by EU, once it has left, and

+  Prime Minister Johnson has said the UK will deliberately  and increasingly diverge from EU environmental , product, and labour standards.

 The EU will not be able to continue to lead the world in, for example, setting higher standards to protect the climate, and the privacy of the data of its citizens, if it were to allow its nearest neighbour, and recently departed member, to undercut its standards with impunity.

The requirements to be fulfilled by Ireland, as part of the EU Customs territory, at its borders and its ports, are set out in immense detail in the EU Customs Code. The Code was adopted in October 1992 by Council Regulation 2913/92

 It requires the uniform application of the Code across the entire EU territory.

The fact that Mr Johnson has invited the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that he would like to the EU to dissolve itself altogether !

John Bruton, former Taoiseach, former EU Ambassador and former vice President of the EPP, speaking at a cross party hearing, organised by Naomi Long MEP, in the European Parliament  on 25 September at 11 am

EMMET DALTON…..FROM PHIBSBORO TO HOLLYWOOD

I greatly enjoyed reading “Emmet Dalton, Somme soldier, Irish General, and Film Pioneer” by Sean Boyne published by Merrion Press. Through the life of one man, this book gives a deep insight into Irish history from 1911 to 1960.

Sean Boyne worked as a political journalist and is deeply interested in military history. He has an accessible writing style, but is also meticulous in his research.

Emmet Dalton’s father , James, was active in the Home Rule movement, and was one of John Redmond’s nominees to serve on the Executive of the Irish Volunteers in June 1914. It was probably because of the family connection with Redmond and the Home Rule cause,  that young Emmet Dalton lied about his age, in order to join the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1915 as a Lieutenant.

 He was posted in Ireland at the time of the 1916 Rising and believed then, and subsequently, that it was a mistake.

Later in 1916, he was at the front at Ginchy when Tom Kettle was killed, in a battle in which many other  members of the Dublin Fusiliers also died. Dalton himself was awarded the Military Cross for his part in the battle.

 He also took part, in  1917, in the long forgotten battles with the Ottoman forces in Gaza, and in the eventual capture of Jerusalem.

 When the war ended, he served in the army of occupation in the Rhineland. 

He returned to Dublin and became a temporary clerk in the Board of Works and became a member of Bohemians FC, near his home in Phibsboro.

In early 1920, He was asked to join the IRA’s GHQ Intelligence Unit , which brought him into close contact with Michael Collins. He was involved in a daring attempt to spring Sean McEoin out of Mountjoy Jail.

  Sean Boyne describes Dalton’s role in this conflict in detail and conveys a  sense of the fraught atmosphere of the times in Dublin. For example, he covers Dalton’s efforts during the Truce to help families locate the remains of young members of the RIC who had been “disappeared” by the IRA during the “Truce”, including a constable Joseph Daly of Enfield.

Like most members of the IRA Headquarters staff, Dalton accepted the Treaty of 1921, but the bulk of the active service units around the country did not do so.

 Dalton was involved in taking over many of the British military facilities , but  the Provisional Government led by Michael Collins was unable to prevent many of them being occupied by anti Treaty forces.

Boyne gives a gripping account of the build up to the beginning of the Civil War.

 The murder of Field Marshal Wilson in June 1922 led to pressure on the Provisional Government from Britain to end the situation whereby large areas of the city of Dublin and of the country generally were occupied by forces who rejected the authority of Dail Eireann and the Treaty it had approved.

 The British believed, wrongly, that anti Treaty Republicans were responsible for the murder of Wilson. One theory is that Collins himself gave the order for the killing during the War of Independence, but forgot to rescind it.

 But the result of the Wilson murder was that Collins was forced to take action to restore the authority of the Dail. From this immediately flowed the shelling of the Four Courts, and the beginning of the Civil War, in June 1922. Again Dalton’s role in this action is described in detail.

 The then 24 year old Dalton commanded the pro Treaty forces who retook Cork and the rest of east Munster in the subsequent fighting. His counterpart in west Munster was Eoin O Duffy, and they did not get on well with one another.

As is well known, Dalton was with Collins in his fateful tour of recently recaptured areas of West Cork, during which we were killed in an ambush at Beal na mBlath. Collins died instantly while returning fire against the ambushers. 

 One of the reasons for Collins visit to Cork was to recover funds, the receipts from excise duties, that had been collected by Anti Treaty forces during their occupation of Cork city and lodged in local banks. But the tour of west Cork was hardly a military necessity.

A few months after Beal na mBlath, Dalton, who was a talented soldier , decided to leave the Army.  He did this even though the Civil War was not over, and he was giving up a potentially good career. 

Boyne speculates that this may have been because of worries about the execution of prisoners by the Free State. 

After he left the Army, he was appointed to be Clerk of the newly established Free State Senate, a rather sedate post in which he did serve for long.

Boyne gives a good account of the Army Mutiny of 1924, in which Dalton’s brother was involved.

Dalton himself went on to make a living as a private detective. In the 1940’s he went to live in England where he got a job with Paramount Pictures, and he supplements his income as a professional punter.

 In the 1950’s and helped establish an Irish film industry. In 1956 he started by making  the film “Professor Tim” a good part of which was shot in Dunboyne Co Meath. He went on to found the Ardmore Studios in Bray Co Wicklow, with help from the IDA. 

He died in March 1978 and was buried with full military honours, although no member of the then government attended.

This is a remarkable book about a truly remarkable man of multiple talents who crammed several lifetimes into one.

AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY THAT PUTS THE IRISH BACKSTOP IN CONTEXT.

I have just finished reading Seamus Mallon’s autobiography, entitled a “Shared Home Place”.

Boris Johnson, or one of his advisors, ought to read it if they wish to get an insight into the concerns that underlie the Irish backstop. 

They will learn that Brexit, and the Irish peace, are not events in themselves, but processes that will go on for years, and will either deepen or reduce division over generations to come.

 This is not a one off problem to be solved, but a choice between two courses of action that are fundamentally inimical to one another.

As the title of his book implies, Seamus Mallon makes the case that Irish nationalists in Northern Ireland, must come to terms with the fact that they must share their home place with a million or so people (unionists) who see themselves as British, and who do not have, and will never have, an exclusively Irish identity.

The early part of the book deals with the author’s experience growing up, peacefully, as a member of a Catholic minority in the predominantly Protestant town of Market hill in Armagh.

 It then moves to the beginnings of the troubles, and the exclusive way in which local government operated to the benefit of the unionist majority, without regard to the wishes of the nationalist minority.

After a stint in local government, Seamus Mallon later was a member of the 1974 power sharing administration, led by the Unionist Brian Faulkner, and established on the basis of the Sunningdale Agreement between the Irish Taoiseach of the day, Liam Cosgrave and his counterpart, Edward Heath. 

This power sharing Administration was brought down by the Ulster Workers strikers, who objected to the whole idea of power sharing between the  two communities. 

Mallon believes the IRA also felt deeply threatened by power sharing, which may explain why Sinn Fein, despite all the efforts made by others to accommodate them, has so far been unable to work the Good Friday institutions even to this day.

Mallon was SDLP spokesman on Justice in the 1980’s and he made a point of attending all the funerals of victims of politically motivated violence in his area, which was an important, but very difficult, demonstration of his profound sense of fairness and,  of his opposition to all violence. 

The book is very explicit about the murderous collusion between the security forces and Loyalist paramilitaries. He names names.

Mallon deals with the Hume/Adams talks, and makes clear that John Hume did not bring his party along with him in this solo endeavour, a failure that had deep long term consequences. 

As Mallon puts it,

 “peace was being brought about in a way that was bypassing democratic procedures”.

He is critical of Sinn Fein having been allowed into government in Northern Ireland without the IRA first  getting rid of their weapons. 

As he puts it, the IRA, continuing to hold weapons, after the Good Friday Agreement had been ratified in both parts of Ireland, was

“a challenge to the sovereignty of the Irish people”.

This was also my opinion at the time, both as Taoiseach and leader of Fine Gael. 

There are some principles that should not be blurred.

 It took the IRA 11 years to eventually put their arms beyond use, and Mallon says that this

 “led to huge mistrust and misunderstanding”.

 Mallon believes the British and Irish governments should have called the IRA’s bluff much earlier, and claims that it was the Americans who eventually forced the issue of decommissioning.

He gives a good account of the dramatic conclusion to the talks that led to the Good Friday Agreement, and of Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble, promising that the process of decommissioning should start “straight away”, a promise Mallon says 

“Blair was either unwilling or unable to keep”.

Mallon understood Trimble’s problem, praises his courage, and believes he was ill used by Tony Blair.

But the artificially prolonged focus on decommissioning kept Sinn Fein as the centre of attention, and thus helped them to supplant the SDLP as the voice of Northern Nationalism. This was an error of historic proportions.

Mallon believes that the Trimble/Mallon( UUP/SDLP) power sharing Administrations  under the Good Friday Agreement achieved more that the Paisley/ McGuinness (DUP/SF) Administrations did.

Mallon opposes political violence in all circumstances. 

As he says

“It is a universal lesson that political violence obliterates not only its victims, but all possibility of rational discourse about future political options”

I agree.

 The 1916 to 1923 period in Ireland also taught us that lesson too!

In the latter part of the book, Seamus Mallon talks about the prospects of a united Ireland. 

The Good Friday Agreement allows for referenda to decide the question. It posits a 50% + one vote as being sufficient to bring a united Ireland about. This is a deficiency in the Agreement.

 A united Ireland, imposed on that narrow basis, would be highly unstable. There would be a minority opposed to it that would simply not give up. 

As Mallon puts it

“I believe that if nationalists cannot, over a period of time, persuade a significant number of unionists to accept an Irish unitary state, then that kind of unity is not an option”

I agree.

The Irish and UK governments could find common ground here.

 But the two communities in Northern Ireland must first start talking to one another about what they really need and what they could concede to one another.

 There is no point blaming the politicians.  If the voters chose parties to represent them that are intransigent, then the voters themselves are ultimately responsible for the outcome.

This is something that Boris Johnson has to contemplate as he seeks a way to deal with the Irish backstop.

PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S LETTER TO COUNCIL PRESIDENT TUSK

 

This letter is important because it sets out the thinking of the new UK Government. 

 It should be taken seriously and analysed.

It contains a number of internal contradictions which should be, politely but persistently, probed by EU negotiators.

I hope to explore some of these in this note.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

Some of the terms used in the letter need to be defined.

For example, Mr Johnson claims the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the ultimate sovereignty of a state concerns the states monopoly on the use of force within its territory. 

UK sovereignty in Britain and Northern Ireland is not interfered with by the backstop, in that basic understanding of state sovereignty.

WHAT IS JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUES CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“ Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.”

It continues

“ I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.”

Boris Johnson recognises what he calls the “unique challenges” Brexit poses for Ireland.

It would be useful to ask him to set out in his own words 

  • what he thinks these “unique challenges” are, and to ask him to set out his own words
  • how he believes these can be met and
  • how his government might contribute to this.

I have the sense that neither he, nor his fellow Brexit advocates, have ever undertaken such a mental exercise.

Again, he says he is “unconditionally” committed to the “letter and the spirit “of the UK’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. 

It would be useful to ask Prime Minister Johnson to put in his own words what he considers these obligations to be, particularly as regards the “spirit “of the Agreement.

DIVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BREXIT, CONVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BELFAST AGREEMENT

Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This means Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards diverging from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU).

FROM WHICH EU STANDARDS DOES UK WISH TO DIVERGE?

Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK wants, according to Mr Johnson.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between these two parts of Mr Johnson’s letter.

On the detail of the backstop, he says

“By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad range of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.”

This point has some validity in its own terms.

 If no alternative solution is found, and the backstop comes into effect, new EU rules, in the making of which the UK will not have had a hand, with apply either to the whole of the UK or to Northern Ireland.

So far the UK has been unable to come up with a credible alternative to the backstop, that would allow Brexit to go ahead, but also to avoid progressive divergence in regulations between the two parts of Ireland. 

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes clear that “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and “central to our future democracy”. It is important the UK public understand what their government is committing itself to.

IT IS BREXIT, NOT THE BACKSTOP, THAT UPSETS THE BALANCE

MrJohnson also claims that 

“ the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

But Brexit, of its very nature, upsets that balance. Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls between those jurisdictions.

Brexit upsets the balance by forcing a choice between

  • having the divergence/border between North and South in Ireland (thereby favouring the  “unionist” position) or 
  • having the divergence/border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (thereby favouring the “nationalist” position).

Brexit alone is responsible for forcing such a choice. And Brexit is a UK initiative, not something forced upon it,

The only way to preserve the “balance”, to which Mr Johnson says he is committed, would be to disaggregate the regulations into categories, and have half the controls North/ South and half on an East/ West basis within the UK. This would be clumsy and would take years to negotiate. But so also is Brexit.

MINORITY RIGHTS AND BREXIT

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights”.

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit. 

Brexit, as promoted by Mr Johnson, is a radical rejection of this minority rights aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

Mr Johnson says

“The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.“

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime. That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

He goes on

“The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.”

This is a strange sentence.

 It says the commitments “can” be met if we “explore” other solutions.

An exploration by its nature is uncertain, and the use of this term contradicts the confident statement that solutions “can” be found. In any event, Mr Johnson ought to have come up with the solution himself by now.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO BREAK UP THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson goes on

“This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

Controls on what goods and services may cross its borders are essential to the EU Single Market.  This is especially the case if the UK decides to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs to the ones applied by EU. 

Given that “divergence” from EU rules is what Mr Johnson says Brexit is all about, inviting the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that, like his fan President Trump, Boris Johnson would like to dissolve the EU!

FAITH, FUTURE AND EUROPE

Address by John Bruton, former Taoiseach at the Novena at Knock Shrine Co Mayo at 12 noon on 14 August 2019; This Novena takes place every year in the Basilica of Our Lady in Knock Co Mayo and is addressed by people from different walks of life.

I have been asked to talk about “Faith, Future and Europe”.

I will start with Faith. There is a deep need for faith in every one of us, even in those who have never believed in God or who have ceased to do so.

Archbishop Neary put it well when he said in Westport on Reek Sunday recently

“People don’t stop wanting God, because they stop believing in Him”. 

 The enduring hunger for meaning is there still. And in the absence of answers, there follows anxiety, depression and a deep sense of being alone. Without transcendent meaning, without faith, life can become a day to day  trek from one insignificant goalpost to the next.

Of course people have doubts. But as Archbishop Neary told the pilgrims in Westport;

“Faith is not primarily concerned with pinning down certitudes, but rather being open to a sense of wonder and awe, which will cut through our conservative certitudes and our liberal self righteousness”.

Faith challenges both of them…..conservative certitudes as well as liberal self righteousness. Faith asks us to look beyond our settled opinions. It asks us to abandon our lazy relativism, asks us to have the confidence and the courage to distinguish between what is true and untrue, good and evil, to recognise that some rights people have are more important than others, and that choices have to be made.

Of course this sort of thing is sometimes difficult for us, as Catholics, to speak up about even to our own families, and it is difficult for our Church to say to the wider public.

 It can be difficult to pass on the faith to our children and grandchildren.

 As Archbishop Neary said on another occasion, the Church, that is all if us, is being led

“ to newness, new awareness, new duties, new forms of mission, new possibilities that may puzzle us, which may scare us, and make us defensive”. 

Above all, Faith opens us up to something bigger than ourselves. Faith is something that transcends, and gives meaning, to everything else.

 In so doing, it answers a deep human need in all of us.

Faith is a gift. A gift from God.

 But it is also a decision. A decision that each one of is free to make, the decision to accept the gift….or not to do so.

 Like marriage, it is a commitment. Faith is a commitment.

What has this to do with Europe?

The late Pope, John Paul II, answered this question in an Apostolic Exhortation in 2003, addressed to the faithful in Europe. 

This was just after his own country had joined the European Union.  He was hopeful about many things.

He praised the new openness of European peoples to one another.

He was pleased with the growth of an European consciousness among people and he was pleased with the growing unity of Europe.

 He said 

“There is no doubt that, in Europe’s history, Christianity has been a central and defining element….the Christian faith has shaped the culture of the continent”.

He went on 

“Europe must recognize and reclaim, with creative fidelity, those fundamental values, acquired through Christianity,

 of the affirmation of the transcendent dignity of each person,

 the value of reason,

 freedom,

 democracy,

 the constitutional state and 

the distinction between political life and religion”.

He said he wanted Catholics, and Christians generally, to get involved with European institutions so as to help shape a European Social order respectful of the human dignity of each man and woman, and thus in accordance with the common good.

 He wanted them to understand that faith and reason are not antagonists, they complement one another.

 But he was worried about Europe’s loss of its Christian memory,   a loss which he feared would be followed by a pervasive fear of the future.  

He was right.  That fear of the future in Europe is greater now than it was in 2003.

Without a reference to its religious heritage, Europe is disconnected from the source of its most deeply held shared values, shared values that can give it confidence and courage.

 Without a sense of the” faith of their fathers”, Europeans lose some of their moorings.

At times, it seems as if relativism has become the real religion of the modern European.

 We incline to see no evil, so we don’t have to become involved.

 We are afraid to say what we believe is right, in case it might give offence.

We think everyone has their own truth, and there is nothing that is true for everybody. No such thing as absolute truth, such as revealed by Christ. No overriding value system.

Europeans should realize that democracy needs a value system, a value system to guide it in the exercise of its freedom.

As Alexis de Tocqueville, writing about American Democracy in the nineteenth century said

“Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot”.

Without a higher order of values,  everything becomes subject to temporary  majorities. 

Let me take the example of human rights, is there any priority among the rights that humans ought to enjoy?

Is a child human before it is born? 

Ought that child enjoy any human rights?

 Is the right to life not superior to other human rights, in the sense that without life, a human cannot enjoy any other human right.

The teaching of our church offers clear, sustainable, rigorous and logical answers to deep and difficult questions like these.

 As it does, with equal rigour, to questions of peace and war.

 As we have seen recently on this country, democracy, if guided  only by relativism, offers no useful answers.

 All it can do is suggest for the PROCESS of decision making…a  citizens assembly or the like…. but it does not ,and cannot, answer the substantial moral questions around human life, and its rights. 

 The argument is only on the level of pragmatism at best, or of emotionalism at worst.

Our challenge, in this generation, is to convince young Europeans, young Irish people, of the modern value of their Christian heritage.

How can we do this?

Let me give one example of how young minds might be opened to faith.

 We can ask them to look at the churches and cathedrals of Europe, build over generations, with the savings of people who were immeasurably poorer and far fewer in number that we are today

 Through these beautiful buildings we gain a window into the value system of our ancestors, into what they regarded as important…..

Why did they make sacrifices to build churches and cathedrals that many of them would never see finished in their lifetime.  Why?

There is a five letter word that explains that….FAITH.

  • Faith in God.  
  • Faith in something greater than today.
  • Faith in something beyond their own lives, or even beyond the lives of their own great grandchildren. 
  • Faith in eternal life.

 A cathedral, or a basilica like this one, is more than just a landmark. 

It is a signpost to the future!

 We can regain that faith in the future that our ancestors had, we can regain that sense of transcendence, that sense of place in a greater scheme of things. And we can help others to do the same.

 That is why we are here in Knock today.

The laity will have a bigger role in the future of the Catholic church. 

 As Archbishop Neary might have put it, the laity, as it takes an increased role in evangelisation, will have to undertake

 “new forms of mission, new possibilities that may puzzle us, which may scare us, and make us defensive”.

 But that is so much more interesting than sticking to the old road of social conformism, of giving out, but of doing nothing much about it. 

UK HAS COMMITTED ITSELF TO RADICALLY CONTRADICTORY POSITIONS ON BREXIT AND THE BELFAST AGREEMENT.

WILL UK BE ABLE TO NEGOTIATE MORE EASILY WITH EUROPE IF IT BINS THE WITHDRAWAL TREATY?

The new UK Foreign Secretary , Dominic Raab, has claimed on Radio 4 that the UK would find it “easier” to negotiate  a good long term deal with Brussels , if it had first crashed out of the EU , than if it ratified the Withdrawal Treaty. 

Doing this would mean binning the entire content the Withdrawal Treaty, not just the backstop.

Settlements painstakingly reached in the Withdrawal Treaty  on transitional matters, like the rights of existing cross border workers, the recognition of existing professional qualifications, social security, mutual financial obligations, enforcement of contracts and judicial decisions, and a transition period up to the end of 2020, would all go into the waste bin.

If , after that, the UK then decided it wanted to negotiate a new Agreement with the EU, these issues would have negotiated all over again from scratch.

That extra workload would be on top of the negotiation of the future EU/UK Agreement, which, given the range of subjects to be covered and the intricacies of arrangements being replaced, would probably be the most complex trade negotiation ever undertaken in human history. 

Binning the Withdrawal Treaty now, would delay the finalisation a future Agreement by several additional years because of this extra workload. 

And that is just on the legal side of things.

 The psychological damage to UK/ EU relations caused by a willful choice of “no deal” by the UK would have to be repaired. A prudent Foreign Secretary would consider these matters more carefully than Mr Raab appears to have done so far.

 It is, of course, true that that the backstop in the existing Withdrawal Agreement constrains the UK’s negotiating options for a future Trade Deal, because it requires the UK to take account of its obligations under the Belfast Agreement as well. 

THE ORIGINS OF THE CONTRADICTION… THE RED LINES OF 2016

 But that backstop is only there because Mrs May, in late 2016, drew three red lines for the  UK’s future relationship with the EU….

  • no customs Union, 
  • no Single Market and 
  • no ECJ jurisdiction….while still remaining a party to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

As was pointed out at the time, these three red lines conflicted with the Belfast Agreement, into which the UK freely entered in 1998, with the approval of the Parliament.

The Belfast Agreement was the basis of which Ireland changed its constitution. No minor matter.

 The three red lines, by their very nature, require the UK to “take control” of its borders. That means  controls at the border, and the only land border the UK has with the EU is in Ireland .  

BORDER CONTROLS WERE INHERENT IN ”TAKING BACK CONTROL”

 Border controls were always the essence of Brexit. 

 Yet the man who led the Brexit campaign in 2016, Boris Johnson, is  now saying the opposite, he is saying that the UK will not impose any border controls in Ireland, and that any controls there might be will be someone’s else’s fault. 

In fact, under WTO rules, the UK itself will almost certainly have to have border controls of its own once it leaves the EU.

Meanwhile EU law, the EU customs code, requires any EU state, if has a border with any state that is not in the EU Customs Union and Single Market,  has to have border controls . The UK knows this well, because its officials helped draw up the EU Customs code. They are familiar with every comma and full stop in it, and know all the customs obligations a no deal Brexit will impose on Ireland.  

PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON SAYS HE RESPECTS THE BELFAST AGREEMENT……BUT HOW?

 Last week in Belfast, Prime Minister Johnson said that he respects the “letter and the spirit “ of the Belfast Agreement. 

 The Belfast Agreement calls for close cross border cooperation on issues like the environment, health, agriculture, electricity, education and tourism. It stands to reason that this sort of cooperation will be made much more difficult, if the Northern Ireland and Ireland are no longer part of the same market for goods and services. The UK red lines  will also lead to diverging professional qualifications, diverging quality standards for goods and services, and diverging standards of consumer protection, between North and South, and between the UK and Ireland. 

Even without physical border controls, that divergence, by its nature, pulls the two parts of Ireland further apart from one another, and pulls Britain and Ireland apart too.  It thus upsets the subtle balance between Unionist and Nationalist identities in Northern Ireland, that the Belfast agreement created. 

Unfortunately Brexit, of its nature, contradicts the spirit of the Belfast Agreement, to which Boris Johnson says he is fully committed.

BACKSTOP WAS A BRIDGE BETWEEN TWO CONTRADICTORY COMMITMENTS MADE BY THE UK

 The backstop was an attempt to build a bridge between these two radically contradictory British positions, Brexit and the Belfast Agreement. 

It was not trap set to tie Britain to the EU, but rather an attempt to help the UK reconcile the two contradictory positions it  itself had taken up, the one it took in 1998, and the one it took in 2016.  

 At first, the backstop was to apply to Northern Ireland alone, but it was the UK that requested that it be extended to island of Britain as well. 

The fact that it was the UK that asked for this extension of the backstop to Britain, belies the idea that the backstop was some sort of Brussels conspiracy to keep Britain in the EU orbit, a theory promoted in pro Brexit circles. 

The UK Parliament has now thrice rejected the Withdrawal Agreement and, with it, the Irish backstop. But the underlying conflict between Brexit and the Belfast Agreement, remains unresolved. The new UK government has no solid proposals of its own for reconciling the basic contradiction. Instead the UK wants to fix responsibility for its own dilemma on Dublin and Brussels.

  Against this background, Dominic Raab is wrong to think that it would be easier for the UK to make a future Trade Agreement with Brussels, after it had walked away from the EU, without paying its bills, and without sorting out the details of the divorce it had initiated. 

NO DEAL IS POOR BASIS FOR FUTURE NEGOTIATION…

 A crash out Brexit is bound to create ill will and could not possibly make the negotiation of a future Agreement easier.

  Indeed a moment’s reflection would tell Mr Raab that it would not be in the EU’s interest to give better terms to a country, that had willfully crashed out, than to one which had stood by commitments made by its Prime Minister. To do so would set a dangerous precedent for the EU. 

Mr Raab might also remember that any future EU deal with the UK will have to be approved by every EU Parliament, including by Dail Eireann, and by the European Parliament.

A No Deal Brexit now will not finalise anything on 1 November. It will just be the start of years of painful non productive negotiation. This negotiation will be unavoidable because geographically the UK is in the continent of Europe, rather than any other continent that it might prefer to be in. The UK will have to live with the EU and vice versa, because of geography.

 A no Deal Brexit on 1 November will poison and prolong what will, in any event, be an essential, but incredibly difficult, negotiation between the UK and the EU on their future relationships.

UKRAINE

The desire for free and fair elections, through which politicians can be held to account, is widespread in the former Communist world.  We have seen this with the arrest in Moscow of over 1000 people, demonstrating against the arbitrary disqualification of candidates for local elections in the city of Moscow, including of a candidate who won 27% of the vote in the last  election.

Corrupting elections was part of the armoury of the Soviet state, and it is a habit that has persisted, long after Communism itself has fallen .

 After the more hopeful Yeltsin years, Russia, the biggest Republic of the former Soviet Union, is reverting to Soviet electoral habits. But the second biggest former Soviet Republic, Ukraine, is taking a  very different course.

 Recent free and fair elections in Ukraine are undoubtedly being watched closely by opposition figures in Russia.

 If Ukraine can make a successful democratic transition, it becomes harder for President Putin to argue that Russia must retain a more authoritarian system. Another neighbour of Ukraine, Viktor Orban of Hungary, will also have to take note.

I have recently had the opportunity of spending a week in Ukraine, as one of a large number of international observers of their Parliamentary Election on 21 July.

The consensus among observers was that these Elections, called early by the newly elected President Zelensky, were both free and fair.

 Votes  in Ukraine are cast in secret, and when the polls close, are counted openly, in the local polling stations themselves. From my observation, these tasks were carried out conscientiously and transparently.

This is not to say that Ukrainian democracy is free of problems.

On a per capita basis , Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Even Moldova is slightly better off. The country’s growth rate is well below potential.

The country is at war, a war that has cost 13000 lives so far. In response to Russian armed interference, Ukraine has had to develop a large army of its own, almost from scratch. 

Yet it depends for income, on transit fees for Russian gas, being piped through Ukraine to customers in the EU. Its  public finances are not in good order, it has had to get help from the IMF, and has had to increase fuel prices to its own citizens as part of the IMF programme.

Like many former Communist states, including ones already in the EU, it suffers from endemic corruption.

 Fighting corruption is one of the goals of the new President. He is handicapped in this effort by the lack of a professional non political civil service, and  of an independent, properly resourced, courts system. These deficiencies inhibit foreign direct investment, because investors need to know honest and efficient courts will be there to protect their legal rights, before they put their money at risk

 MPs are immune from legal proceedings while serving as MPs, and this privilege has attracted some people into politics in pursuit of their private interests, rather than the public good. The President has promised to end this immunity, but he has got to get the MPs to vote for this.

While the election itself was free and fair, the television coverage of the campaign was not. Ukrainians rely heavily on television to inform themselves about politics. Television stations tend to be controlled by rival oligarchs, and these oligarchs often are politicians in their own right. Rules requiring balanced coverage during election campaigns are not properly enforced. 

Ukraine has an Association Agreement with the EU, which is described as “the most ambitious the EU has with any non EU member state”. Indeed this agreement may serve as a model for a future UK Agreement with the EU, whenever the tortuous Brexit process in concluded.

But there are clear signs that Ukrainians will not be satisfied , in the long run, with a mere Association Agreement with the EU, however ambitious it may be. Their goal is to be a full voting member state of the EU.  When they signed the EU Association Agreement, they rejected President Putin’s offer to join his proposed Eurasian Union. Indeed it was that rejection that triggered the Russian invasion of Crimea and of parts of eastern Ukraine.  So Ukraine has paid a high price for its EU choice

It also is a very big country, with over 40 million people.

 It may have been a privileged “vassal”, or first daughter, of the Russian Empire in the past. But it has decided to turn its back on  that and has set itself the goal of joining the EU instead, and not in a secondary role. Its leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

But the prospect, however long term,of EU membership for Ukraine is far from simple for the EU.

 In 2001, the EU enlarged itself very quickly and took in many new member states in central and eastern Europe. Some of these countries had unresolved  post Communist problems of the kind still besetting Ukraine…corruption, weak courts, poor public administration, organised crime and oligarchical control of the media.

 The EU is, in its essence, a set of uniform rules, on the basis of which its citizens enjoy freedoms across a whole continent. But, if the enforcement of these rules can be corrupted through weak or politicised courts or by bad administration, these EU wide freedoms cease to mean anything.

 So until the EU is satisfied it has got on top of  the corruption and rule of law problems it already has among  some of its own existing members, like Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, it will be very  slow in admitting new members, like Ukraine, where the same problems are unresolved.

 The EU is in a stronger position to insist of high standards in a country, like Ukraine, which is still looking for membership. It is harder to insist with countries that are already full voting members of the club.  Existing members can and will used their votes in the Council of Ministers to block EU sanctions for rule of law, or related, breaches of EU standards.

 Getting these rule of law issues right will be the number one priority of the new Von der Leyen Commission, even ahead of Brexit.

Until it does that, the EU cannot credibly offer hope of membership to countries like Ukraine, Northern Macedonia and Albania. Without such hope, these countries could turn away from the EU,  and other global players, such as China, Turkey or Russia, could take the EU’s place.

HAS THE BREXIT DISEASE REACHED LEINSTER HOUSE?

The fact that Dail Eireann voted yesterday to reject an EU Trade and Investment deal with Mercosur, that took 20 years to negotiate, and that few members could have read,  shows that Irish politics is not immune to the Brexit disease that has infected British politics. 

This disease consists in thinking that there is no need to make concessions in international relations and that, instead, one “can have it all”, without paying any price.

This delusion has led the UK into a deeply destructive position on Brexit.

I will not go into the details of the Mercosur trade deal here. Commissioner Phil Hogan dealt with these in an interview he gave to Sean O Rourke on RTE 1.  

The Dail vote showed a poor understanding of the importance of trade agreements to the very existence of the EU.

The EU is not a military power. It is a commercial power. That commercial power is exercised through agreements through which the EU can promote its values, and can protect the commercial and strategic interests of its member states, including smaller ones like Ireland.

 In recent times, the EU has made Agreements with Canada and Ukraine, and both had great difficulty being ratified, because one or two national parliaments took a similar line on them to the one taken on Mercosur by Dail Eireann yesterday.

If the EU cannot make and ratify Trade Agreements, it will gradually wither away, and member states will be forced  to find other ways of protecting their national interests. 

That might work for big states like France and Germany. But it will not work well for smaller states. The members of Dail Eireann should keep that in mind when they next come to consider the Mercosur deal.

Page 1 of 55

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén