John Bruton

Opinions & Ideas

Category: BREXIT Page 1 of 6

650 DIFFERENT ELECTIONS WILL DECIDE BREXIT

The UK General Election on 12 December will decide whether Brexit

  • goes ahead on the basis of Boris Johnson’s deal, 
  • is subject to a referendum or
  • is simply revoked.

But the result of the election will be affected by things that have little to do with Brexit.     The implications for taxpayers of Labour’s policies will be scrutinised. So will the personalities of the party leaders. The Conservative record will be a factor, as will their recent conversion to high spending.

In effect, the issue will be decided in 650 separate elections. Each constituency is different.

 A strong showing by a party, that has no chance of winning the seat itself, may siphon more votes away from one of the leading parties than it does from another, and this differential could tip the balance in favour of a party that would otherwise have lost the seat.

The UK electoral system forces voters to make tactical choices.

 If a voter wants to influence things, he/she may have to vote for a candidate, who has a good chance of winning and with whom they agree on some important issue, rather than for a candidate who may be closer to their views, but has no chance. 

Tactical voting is a very difficult exercise. Getting reliable information will be hard for voters to do. Disinformation and fake news will be factors.

The Conservatives are targeting Labour seats in constituencies that voted Leave in 2016, many in the Midlands and the North of England. But the Brexit Party will also target these same seats and the Brexit party does not have to defend a record in government, and is less associated with “austerity”.

The latest polls are very inconsistent.

 In the last ten days, 

A You Gov poll gave the Conservatives 37%, Labour 22%, Liberal Democrats 19% and the Brexit Party 12%

But an Opinium Poll gave the Conservatives 40%, Labour 24%, Lib Dems 15% and the Brexit Party 10 %.

These polls, taken before the election was called, suggest a Conservative majority government.

 But as the campaign goes on the Brexit issue will fade, and other issues may come to the fore, not least the slow performance of the UK economy in recent years.

My own experience is that polls, taken before an election is actually called, are not good predictors of the final result.

But a poll taken a week after the campaign has started is a much better indicator.

Other opinion polls suggest a deeply divided electorate. A poll done by Edinburgh and Cardiff Universities suggests a deeply polarised electorate.

Brexit appears to be a Conservative Party obsession, that is not shared by the supporters of other parties.

For Example, 82% of those who intend to vote Conservative say the unravelling of the peace process in Ireland would be a price worth paying to get Brexit done, whereas only 12% of Labour and 4% of Liberal Democrats are of that opinion. 

There is a similar difference between the parties on the risk that Brexit could lead to a referendum on Scottish independence. 

The gap between younger and older voters is also stark. 21% of those under 24 felt Brexit was worth risking the Irish peace process for, whereas 68% of those over 65 were prepared to take that risk. 

Older voters are more reckless, which goes against the conventional stereotype.

There is also a difference between the parties on how they perceive the likelihood of certain things actually happening.

Only 28% of Conservative voters believe Brexit is likely to lead to an unravelling of the Irish peace process, whereas 77% of Labour voters believe it is likely to do so. This suggests that people believe what they want to believe.

On the possibility of Brexit leading to a referendum on Scottish independence, 66% of English voters believe it will happen. There is only a modest difference between the parties in this. Very few actually want Scotland to leave the UK, but many are prepared to take that risk.

The great tragedy is that the British people, in a referendum during the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat coalition, rejected the Alternative vote electoral system. This would have given it a more evenly representative parliament. It would have made coalition the norm. If so, there would have been no Brexit referendum.

A Fixed Term Parliament combined with a winner take all electoral system was bound to lead to a crisis.  A fixed term Parliament would have been workable if there was a more proportional system of election, but it is not workable in a political culture, like that of the UK, which rejects coalitions.

Irish people will have to sit and watch an important aspect of our future being decided under a flawed electoral system which favours polarisation and over simplification. 

THE BORIS VERSION OF BREXIT

http://www.chathamhouse.org/

Make no mistake about it, the latest version of Brexit is a very hard Brexit.

The UK Government has abandoned the legally binding commitment in the previous deal to align with EU regulatory standards to the greatest extent possible. That is now dropped in favour of a political aspiration.

The more the UK diverges from EU standards the greater is the likelihood that the EU will have to place tariff and other barriers in the way of UK imports to the EU, and now also to Northern Ireland. The problem will be particularly acute for agricultural goods.

The EU/UK trade negotiation has yet to begin, but I believe it will be both lengthy and difficult. This is a direct result of the “red lines” for Brexit chosen by the UK (no custom union membership, no single market membership and no ECJ jurisdiction). This was a legitimate choice for the UK to make, but the costs of the choice are yet to be revealed and understood. When they are, it will be too late to change course. 

Many in the UK say they just want to “get Brexit over with”. The impatience is understandable, but the truth is that agreeing the Withdrawal Treaty will not actually get Brexit “over with”. The additional bureaucracy will be permanent. If there is not to be a no deal crash out, the transition period will have to be much long than the end of 2020, because the trade negotiation will only be in its early stages by then.

The only way to get  the agony of Brexit over with, would be to revoke Brexit. There is little popular support for that, so Brexit will drag on and preoccupy British politics for years.

By choosing a harder Brexit than Mrs May, and agreeing that the controls will be in the Irish sea, Boris Johnson has chosen to prioritize the interests of  hardline Brexiteers in England over the interests of the DUP in Northern Ireland. Such a choice was inherent in Brexit, which is why it will remain a puzzle for historians to discern why the DUP chose to support Brexit with such enthusiasm in the first place.

 THE WORLD AFTER BREXIT

I would like to turn now to the world after Brexit, and about the European Union, of which we will continue to be a member and in whose success we will now have a disproportionate interest.

The world has become a much more unpredictable place than it was 10 years ago. 

The era of easy decisions may be over.

A European country, Ukraine, has been successfully invaded by it neighbour, Russia, breaking solemn undertakings that had been given. We have been reminded of the importance of defence.

There is widespread evidence of interference in elections and democratic processes by authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world. Voting software is being infected. Campaigns are being hacked. National rules on election spending can be circumvented via the social media.

The United States has created doubt around its defence commitments to Europe. It has walked away from its Kurdish allies in Syria, and Europe was not able to fill the gap, although the refugees from that conflict are more likely to end up in Europe than in America. In fact Europe is dependent on Turkey and North Africa to curb mass migration to the southern shores of the EU.

The EU has not developed a migration policy, which, if properly organised , could bring dynamism to our continent to compensate for the loss of dynamism that will inevitably flow from the ageing of the native European population.

The US is undermining the rules based international order in the field of trade. It is refusing to allow the appointment of replacement judges to the WTO’s appellate court, which will soon lead to that court ceasing to function. This is happening just at the time that our nearest neighbour may find itself relying on the WTO once its post Brexit transition period expires. 

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. Chinese R and D spending will exceed US Rand D this year and far exceeds EU R and D.

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

Chinese firms own Volvo, Pirelli and recently bought the firms supplying robots to the German car industry. EU could not buy the equivalent Chinese firms.

Chinese military spending exceeds that of all EU states combined and is already half that of the US.

 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.

THE RESPONSE OF EUROPE

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. This requires a harmonisation of company insolvency rules throughout the EU or the eurozone.

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..

BREXIT IS A SETBACK FOR EUROPE……..STAGNATION MUST BE AVOIDED

There is no doubt but Brexit has been a setback for Europe.

True, the EU had maintained its unity and stability, in stark contrast to the way in which the UK system has been convulsed by the divorce. But that does not take away from the fact that we are losing a relatively young, diverse and creative member state. 

The EU’s strategic weight in the world will be reduced by the absence of the UK.

The population of the remaining members of the  EU are, in global terms, relatively elderly, pessimistic and risk averse. This could lead the EU to make big mistakes.

I give some examples of this.

Many member states refuse even to contemplate the amendment of the EU Treaties because of the risk of defeats in referenda. If that remains the attitude, the EU will simply stagnate. Every successful human organisation must have the capacity to change its rules if this is demonstrably necessary. The US is unable to amend its constitution and we can see the problems that has led to.

Unlike the US, the EU has been able to attract and accommodate new member states over the last 50 years. At last week’s Summit, France the Netherlands and Denmark blocked the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia even though that country has done everything the EU asked to qualify, even changing its name, which was a highly sensitive matter. 

The fact that this rejectionism was led by President Macron, who makes great speeches about European integration, is particularly disquieting. I hope he changes his mind. Yes, we need tougher means of ensuring that the rule of law in respected in the most rigorous way but that could have been dealt with in the negotiations with North Macedonia, which would have gone on for years any way.

 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. This will be an area of special concern in regard to traffic between Britain and Northern Ireland.

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.

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.

Likewise the UK must not be allowed to undercut the EU on worker protection, environmental and product quality standards. The UK will have to set up bureaucracies to devise and enforce UK standards. 200 EU environmental laws will have to be replaced by the UK. Westminster will be busy.

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 yet been created.

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

We must have strong national democracy if we are to have a strong EU, and we must have strong national democracy if we are to have strong states.

 There are remarkable differences in the level of confidence people in Europe feel in their own national democracy. According to a recent Pew Poll, 72% of Swedes have confidence in how their national democracy works. Within the Netherlands confidence in their system was  68%, in Poland it was 61% and in Germany 65%. 

But , at the other end of the spectrum, only  31% of British, and 32% of Spaniards and Italians had confidence in their own democratic systems.

To build confidence in the EU, we also need to rebuild confidence in democracy itself, at every level of governance

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

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!

IF THE BRITISH ALTERNATIVES TO BACKSTOP ARE ALL THAT GOOD, WHY CAN THEY NOT LIVE WITH THE BACKSTOP, UNTIL THE ALTERNATIVES ARE AGREED?

Boris Johnson said yesterday that there is an “abundance” of technical alternatives to the Irish Backstop. He added that “do or die” he would take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

 He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

First, he has not put forward any detailed alternative to the backstop.

Secondly, there is no way anything meaningful can be negotiated between the time Mr Johncon would become Prime Minister and the end of October. After its experience with the failure of the UK side to ratify proposals it had previously agreed, there is no disposition on the EU side to take things  “on trust” from the UK. There is nothing necessarily personal about this. It is just common prudence.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found. 

If Boris Johnson was as confident, as appears to be that abundant alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed. 

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations. The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from health care to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to cooperate on a cross border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. They envisage that their proposal would be added as a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. This would require  EU consent.

Its authors  also admitted that more work was needed on their proposal.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to leave, come what may, on 31 October means that Prosperity UK’s proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes Prime Minister.

 Prosperity UK proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead. 

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

 The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These would actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be even more likely than if the controls were on the border itself. And smuggling can be used to finance subversive activities, as we know.

 To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI, Prosperity UK proposes that that, for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead! 

 This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

  But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world.

 One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen, by a refusal by the DUP and/or Sinn Fein to work together, is not acceptable.

 But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to negotiate such a relationship. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means. 

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.

He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.

If Boris Johnson was as confident as appears to be that alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations.

Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure.

Its authors admitted that more work was needed.  It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem.

 It proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These will actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be much greater.

To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI,  that I for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead!  This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world. One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the whole Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen by the refusal of the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together is not acceptable.

But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to get it. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means.

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.

DO TORY LEADERSHIP CONTENDERS UNDERSTAND WHY THERE IS AN IRISH BACKSTOP?

The Backstop is not just about the border. It is not a technical matter. It is not just about what happens at 200 crossing points.

It is about the people of Northern Ireland, and giving all of them (not just a majority) the freedom to be who they are, and a sense of belonging.

But the present debate in the UK Conservative Party about replacing the backstop, seems to assume that it is all about technical fixes and invisible border posts , and that some yet to be discovered combination of IT and lasers would remove the need for physical customs posts, and that would then solve the entire problem. That is a mistake.

The backstop is about far more than this.  It is a recognition of the fact that, in Northern Ireland there is a population some of whom feet they have exclusively British identity and allegiance, some of whom feel they have an exclusively Irish identity and allegiance, and some of whom combine these allegiances comfortably enough.

The backstop is a recognition of this fundamental divide, which has led to so much suffering in the past, and an attempt to sustain the arrangements that ended that suffering.

The Belfast Agreement of 1998 transcended these divisions through provisions for intense North/ South and East/West cooperation, that would allow all three groups, described above, to feel fully at home in Northern Ireland under any present, or future , constitutional arrangements.

This was easy to envisage as long as both parts of Ireland remained in the EU, because EU rules facilitated and underpinned free and easy cooperation both North/South and East/West.

In such a context, territorial “sovereignty” became less of an issue, because it was overlaid by structures of free cooperation enshrined in EU law.

Brexit changes all that in a radical way. It brings territorial sovereignty back into the centre of stage in a way that threatens the Belfast Agreement settlement in a deeply fundamental way. I believe that Theresa May came to understand this, and that that explains her acceptance of the backstop.

Most of those contending to take her place in the Conservative Party leadership do not seem to do so.

In the agreement of March 2019, the EU side has given the UK very strong assurance of its good faith in seeking to find an alternative to the backstop.

But that will only work if the UK side really understand why the backstop was put there in the first place.

I do not believe that the contenders for Conservative Party leadership have taken this on board.

HOW MIGHT A NEW WAY FORWARD ON BREXIT BE UNCOVERED, IF THE EXISTING DEAL IS NOT ACCEPTED?

Avoiding a No Deal Brexit is going to require a radical change in the way the House of Commons makes decisions.

Now that the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with the EU has been rejected twice by the House of Commons, MPs must now turn to discovering what alternative approach might find find actually support. Only then can to UK engage meaningfully with the EU.

This process must be completed by 10 April, the date of  a possible special meeting of the European Council on Brexit.

Otherwise the UK will simply crash out of the EU with no deal on 12 April., with dire consequences for us all.

So how might the House of Commons organise itself to make the key decisions?

And will the May government facilitate, or deliberately hinder, the process?

There have been suggestions that the Prime Minister might call a General Election, if support is gathering for a solution that she does not like, or which might split the Conservative Party irrevocably.

The options for decision making in the House of Commons have been analysed in an excellent paper published last week by the  Constitution Unit of University College London.

One proposed way (e.g. by Kenneth Clarke and others) of organising the question is to offer preferential voting, a Proportional Representation system of choosing between options.

This method is already used for choosing the chairs of committees in the House . It would avoid the problems of the yes/no voting system, and encourage  more sincere voting.

But the choices to be made are complex, and contingent on other choices by other people. MPs may find themselves needing to know how other MPs will vote on other questions, before they feel they can decide how to vote on the question that is actually in front of them.

To address this problem, the Constitution Unit suggests that two separate ballots might be held.

The first ballot would ask MPs to rank preferences,(1,2,3) as between:

  • Moving straight to Brexit on the existing deal without a referendum
  • Accepting a Brexit deal, but on condition that it is put to the people for approval in a referendum
  • Ending the Brexit process and revoking Article 50 and stay in the EU on existing terms as a  full voting member( an option that still exists up to 12 April).

These options are incompatible with one another, so the result of the ballot would clarify matters. The option that got  the most support would then be the basis for a second ballot.

If MPs do not vote in the first ballot to revoke Article 50 and stay in the EU, a second ballot might then ask them to rank different options for a Brexit deal on a 1, 2, 3,4th preference basis.

They would have to say their order of preference between four options:

+The Prime Minister’s current deal, including the backstop and proposed ‘customs arrangements’

+The current Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, with significantly looser customs arrangements (the ‘Canada’ model) which in practice would make the backstop more likely to be brought into effect

     + The current Withdrawal Agreement alongside significantly closer arrangements (the ‘Norway’ model or ‘Common Market 2.0’) which would in practice make use of the backstop unnecessary

+ A ‘no deal’ Brexit.

The result of this ballot would establish the wishes of the House.

Obviously the process would have to be public so each MP’s ballot paper would have to be published. But the whole process could be completed in a day.

But it would be necessary to have a government in place that would intend to fulfil the preferences of the House in a sincere and constructive way. 650 MPs cannot negotiate with Michel Barnier. Only a government can do that.

Paving the way for a PR type ballot will be very difficult.

The UK Conservative Party  has a deep dislike of the whole idea of PR. But PR may be the only way out of  its present dilemma.

It is also important that the issue be decided on the basis of free votes, although it has to be recognised that an MP ,who is threatened with possible de selection by his/her constituency association, is not entirely free.

If the present Prime Minister refuses to allow some such system of discerning the will of Parliament, or if she declines to accept the result in a sincere spirit, the question would arise as to whether she should continue in office.

Ultimately, the House of Commons holds the power – and hence the threat – of removing the government from office.

Under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, a vote of no-confidence does not immediately result in a general election, but triggers a 14-day period during which a new government can be formed.

There is no necessity that any new Prime Minister be one of the party leaders. Any MP could become Prime Minister.

Instead it would be crucial for any new Prime Minister to command the confidence of the House of Commons – beyond the confines of the Conservative Party – to deliver the next stage of the Brexit process.

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