Brexit isn’t working, and isn’t going to work. Sooner or later its false promises were going to be exposed and it didn’t take long. The recession caused by the Government’s Covid-19 lockdown policy has only partially hidden its effects but sector specific issues and complaints from trade associations plus the emergence of official statistics are revealing the damage.
French customs recorded that exports and imports to the UK in January fell by 13 and 20 per cent compared to the average of the previous six months, while the volume of French trade to other countries increased. German exports to the UK were down 30 per cent year on year, continuing the decline since the Brexit referendum, while Italy reported a 38 per cent drop in exports and 70 per cent drop in exports.
Some of this is undoubtedly due to the pandemic and its effect on the reduction of consumer demand, and some due to the build-up of inventory in anticipation of Brexit, but these are dramatic reductions. Although not dramatic enough it seems.
It is now reported that the British Government is so Brexit unprepared that the introduction of checks required by it, postponed until April and July, would so damage trade that they could lead to shortages in supermarkets. They will therefore be deferred further, with a “lighter touch” in controls on imports while work on border inspection posts continues, or in some cases only starts.
British exports to the EU however will continue to have the full suite of border checks applied, while the EU will be alert to the components imported into the UK that are incorporated into these exports but have been subject to rudimentary checks, if any. Other countries might also wonder at British discrimination in favour of EU exports to the UK while theirs suffers the full panoply of inspections. This temporary solution cannot therefore be a permanent one but has the potential to create more problems – the “fantastic” Brexit deal all over it might be said.
On this score, while unable to implement controls on its own borders, the ‘Minister for the Benefits of Brexit’ still celebrates the achievement of “a sovereign country in full control of our own destiny while keeping open and free trade between us”; claiming that while many said it could not be done, David Frost can declare “but we did it”. Except that what “we did” – what he was personally responsible for negotiating – he has now torn up three times in one week in respect of the Northern Ireland Protocol (in relation to supermarkets, parcels and plants/machinery).
The greater integration of the Northern Ireland economy into the British, and the political divisions within it, have brought to the fore the irreducible problems of Brexit that in Britain have been addressed by reduction in trade, lorry parks, restriction of entry into Kent and postponement of the application of import controls.
These controls are undoubtedly onerous, with potentially separate approval documentation for hundreds of individual items in containers and lorries. Many seem petty and pointless, at least to those doing the trading. Before the controls were even implemented the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein had written to the EU Commission expressing concerns about the effects of these controls and asking for “flexibility”.
At the time I thought that Sinn Fein was complaining about something it had supported: the Brexit border had to go somewhere and it went down the Irish sea as it wanted. For the DUP the complaint was consistent with their opposition to any separation from Britain, even if it wasn’t consistent with their support for Brexit. But both were guilty of not accepting the seemingly empty statement of Theresa May that Brexit meant Brexit.
The difficulty of full implementation of the Brexit deal in relation to the North of Ireland was appreciated by the EU, which is why it was prepared to come to some agreement with the British Government if this could be separated from wider application. This is what the EU side thought it was doing when perfidious Albion did what it does.
Both the EU and the British sought to leverage the situation in Ireland to their advantage and the latest spat is a continuation of that. The breach of the Trade and Cooperation Agreement (TCA) is a provocation that obviously plays well for the Tories politically but it has no future and can only fool the gullible Brexit supporters so often – yes even some of them will eventually twig.
The EU will not be deterred from pursuing its existing course and if it does not hold all the cards, the ones held by the British entail paying a price for their being played. The range of actions it can take will always involve a higher price being incurred by them than the EU. The possible benefit to the British is that any eventual fudge needed to get the Irish Sea border arrangements to work can be claimed as a victory even if the EU is content to accept it.
For the EU, the difficulty is, as they say, one of trust. How can it be confident that any attempt to adjust the working of the NI Protocol does not entail more than a fudge that it can live with? It is even now pointing out that the British are not implementing the deal already agreed, including providing EU officials with the information they require to validate checks.
Given the nature of the existing TCA there is no great need for the EU to seek to ‘punish’ the British, it has enough mechanisms to address non-compliance. Were the British Government to still seek to essentially violate and contravene the Protocol it would compel the EU and Irish Government to choose between a Brexit border at the Irish land border or make the entry and exit points in the Irish State that border. The latter has been described by unionism as a win-win-win situation (for GB, NI and the Irish State) but it would entail all goods leaving the Irish State being subject to checks whether made in that EU member state or not, and it would mean acceptance into that state of any British product whether single market compliant or not; hardly a win for Dublin.
The Brexit border at the Irish border would be widely condemned as a breach of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and although it isn’t we have reached a stage where political reaction will very much go along the same lines as if it did. Practically it would be difficult to enforce and politically it would be very damaging. Were the GFA working smoothly it might be remotely possible to conceive that this just about might be accepted (at a stretch) but not under current and any conceivable future circumstances given the instability of the Stormont Assembly and Executive.
Sinn Fein would find it impossible to stay in a political arrangement which produced an obviously strengthened border. The DUP and other unionists are now faced with the same choice, as ex-DUP leader Peter Robinson has explained – basically suck it up or bring down the Executive and Assembly, which is not even guaranteed to get rid of the Protocol anyway. Comparisons have been made with unionist opposition to the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s, but this opposition failed.
The DUP engineered the temporary suspension of Brexit checks at the ports through claiming that there were threats to staff that were not confirmed by the police. Council staff from a DUP dominated council and from the DUP controlled Agriculture Department were briefly withdrawn prompting EU staff to follow suit. The DUP has been unable to back up its claims of intimidation and the trade unions involved have denied claims that they had raised serious concerns. The DUP Minister has also stopped work on building permanent border inspection posts (upon which work hasn’t started) but this too will not be a permanent obstacle to operation of the Protocol.
Loyalist politicians have engaged in their usual sabre-rattling, threatening to fight and engage in “guerrilla warfare” although this is always to be engaged in by someone else, in the first place by the loyalist paramilitaries. They in turn have reminded everyone that they and the wider ‘unionist community’ are “angry” and are withdrawing support from the Good Friday Agreement. Since this Agreement envisaged loyalist paramilitaries disappearing through bribery, and they have no intention of disappearing and see no need to do so when the bribes keep coming, what this ‘support’ amounts to rarely gets asked, just as it’s to lots of people’s advantage for it not to get answered.
The DUP came under criticism for meeting the paramilitaries’ umbrella group but the British Government, through the Northern Ireland Office, had already done so. Normally when the British do something unionists don’t like these paramilitaries eventually get around to killing Catholics. This time the immediate targets are as likely to be Protestant employees carrying out border checks as Catholics, and the British Government can be portrayed as at least partially on their side in seeking modification of the Protocol, if not yet its removal. Their problem is the EU and the Agreement made with it.
DUP opposition has been motivated as much by falling polling numbers as the embarrassing results of its Brexit policy. Its support was reported in February to have dropped to a 20-year low of 19 per cent, more than nine percentage points down on its vote share at the last Stormont election, which could see it being eclipsed as the biggest party by Sinn Fein. The First Minister of Northern Ireland would then be a supporter of a United Ireland. Most of the lost DUP voters have gravitated to the even more rabidly reactionary Traditional Unionist Voice, which according to the survey has increased its support by 10 per cent.
DUP leader Arlene Foster began the year by declaring the Protocol “the gateway of opportunity for the whole of the UK and for Northern Ireland” while now calling it “absolutely devastating.” The DUP privately lobbied the British Government for a “Swiss-style” deal before their Economy Minister condemned it for requiring the UK to “slavishly” follow the EU. The same Minister also complained about a £70m hole in her budget created by the loss of EU funding.
Unionist opposition is therefore incoherent and is partially muffled by the duplicitous policy of the British Government, which is attempting to delay the worst impacts of Brexit and probably harbours some vain hope it can modify the workings of the TCA permanently. The EU will continue to implement the deal and to grind down non-compliance with the tools included in the Agreement.
In all this rolling calamity, that once again has exposed the disaster that is Brexit, we should finally not forget the role of the leader of the British Labour Party, Sir Keir Starmer, who voted for the TCA and now also owns its results. However, rather than begin to separate himself from it and expose the disastrous effects of the Tories’ Brexit, he thinks he can ignore it and say nothing, even as it impacts the people for whom his three wise monkey policy is supposed to be for. This, along with everything associated with Brexit, will not work.