The Northern Ireland Protocol and Brexit 2 – the cart without a horse

The offer by the EU to significantly reduce checks on goods, especially food, on the Irish Sea border, and the promise to legislate for British authorisation of medicines supplied into NI and therefore the Single Market, takes away the salience of complaints of barriers to the supply of goods from Britain into Northern Ireland.  The solution of the medicines issue was promised long ago and the EU was never going to allow itself to be held up to criticism for preventing the supply of medicines, including cancer treatments, to NI.  The non-issue of British sausages that was already hardly alive was killed once again by the EU breaking with its policy on chilled meats entering the Single Market. 

This does not mean that these issues are solved.  One reason that the existing border checks did not work was because the British and Unionist minister at Stormont made sure that they didn’t.  The scope, or motivation, for a repeat approach by the British in the enforcement of the compensating mechanisms proposed by the EU for the abandonment of checks at the sea border remain to be seen.

Instead, the question of the role of the EU’s European Court of Justice (ECJ) has been held aloft by the British as the key requirement in negotiation of a new Protocol.  Of course, the unionists don’t want any Protocol but that could only be the outcome if the UK and EU entered a trade war that none would benefit from, especially the British.  The unionists aren’t worth that price for the British so they will just have to sell as a victory whatever Johnson and Frost agree to in the end.

However, if both the British and unionists wanted to declare victory now is the time to do it.  The EU declared it would not negotiate and it has; its restrictions on food imports and requirement for authorisation within the EU for medicines circulating within it are important elements of its Single Market but have been given up in this case (the former to an extent).  It can bypass them only because it believes it can contain these concessions within the Protocol, that is within its arrangements for the North of Ireland.  It obviously takes the view that there will be no leakage into any other trading relationship and no precedent set that could be exploited by other trading partners.

Both the British and unionists could therefore claim that not only has it forced the EU to negotiate the Protocol, which it still denies, but that they have compelled the EU to surrender much of what it said it could not do.  It has political coverage for this not only for the reasons just set out but also because for its Irish member state and for Northern nationalists what matters is that there is no Single Market land border down the middle of the country.  As long as the checks along the Irish sea are held to be working, they are happy.

But this will remain an issue.  The more the British depart from EU regulation, the greater the scope for unapproved goods to circulate into the Single Market and therefore greater risk to the integrity of it.  The compensating proposals from the EU would therefore have to have meaningful effect and will grow in impact as Britain diverges from EU requirements, whether arising from its own decisions or from those of changed EU rules.

This is not the declared reason for the new prominence of the ECJ in British demands.  Instead, it is what a NI business representative called “nothing but a Brexit purity issue.”  For him the ECJ “it is not a practical or business issue.”  In fact, for business the Protocol gives unique access to both the UK and EU markets.  Were the British market certain to continue to be the much more lucrative and important the unionists would have little to fear from this parallel opportunity.  However, the growing trade between North and South and the reduced trade between the Irish State and Britain means that their opposition to the Protocol on political grounds is justified even if nationalists deny it. Unfortunately for unionist leaders this political opposition is detrimental to the people they represent, which will not have short term importance but will in the long term.

The unionist commentator Newton Emerson has argued that Irish and EU complaints about British negotiating tactics are a ‘slight loss of perspective’ and that their annoyance is mistaken.  In effect, both sides are at it and it’s a case of ‘all is fair in love and war’ . . . and trade negotiations.  He is however wrong to say that “the fact that Frost is tearing up his own deal is a redundant complaint.  The protocol is being negotiated.”  It matters that the negotiations that are now being conducted are not a first stab at an agreement but follow bad faith negotiations by the British who never intended to implement the deal they signed.

It matters because all the arguments made by Emerson about the ECJ not being necessary for Single Market governance must face up to this.  It is not a matter of whether the NI Protocol can be made amenable to Swiss type arrangements or those governing EU relations with Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein, which insert arrangements that put ECJ competence at a greater distance.

Why would the EU agree to Swiss governance arrangements when the British have just rejected Swiss trading arrangements? Why would they seek to introduce arrangements involving numerous bilateral treaties that they already find too onerous and have sought to dispense with?  Why would they seek the governance arrangements applied with Norway etc. when the British specifically rejected the EEA option as the form of Brexit they should seek?  Part of the reason why the EU will not want to agree is that the British cannot be trusted.  

If Emerson wants to critique the statements of Irish politicians in relation to the British approach to negotiations he would be better to start with Varadkar’s nonsense that “for decades, for centuries, British people in many ways were renowned by the fact that they were an honourable people; people whose word you could trust . . .“ And by “people” it should be understood to mean the British state.

Has he not heard of Perfidious Albion?  Has he no knowledge of the Anglo-Irish treaty, with its Boundary Commission, or the promise by the British king in 1921 that the new Northern Ireland parliament would be “an instrument of happiness and good government for all parts of the community . . .’?

The British may reject the mitigations of border checks and alternative arrangements and may demand removal of any role for the ECJ.  If they do, they may proceed with Article 16, which will lead to further negotiations but also opens up the possibility of retaliatory measures against them by the EU.  Tory Brexiteers are still bloviating about the EU needing Britain more than the Brits need the EU but only the blinkered continue to entertain such nonsense.

It is reported that Article 16 may be triggered by the British on narrow grounds that may avoid a fuller EU retaliatory response but we would have to see what such narrow grounds might be and the EU has indicated it is weary of British negotiating tactics.

Even if the EU were to agree to some intervening body between the operation of the Protocol and adjudication by the ECJ, this would not essentially change the fact that there would be a Protocol that would involve a trade border between NI and GB and none between the North and South of Ireland.  It would not change Northern Ireland membership of both the UK and EU markets or the economic dynamics released by this arrangement.  It would not put to bed the problems that will arise if the British decide to increasingly diverge from EU rules.  It would not change the enforcement mechanisms ultimately available under the Protocol or wider Trade and Cooperation Agreement and it would not change the power imbalance between the UK and EU.

The attitude socialists should take to all of this should follow from their opposition to the whole reactionary Brexit project, which seeks to reverse the internationalisation of capitalism and the long-achieved broaching of nation state constraints on the productive forces.  Such an international development of capitalism is precisely the material basis for socialism and the unity of the working class irrespective of nationality.

Some on the left have opposed Brexit only by registering its English nationalist clothes and necessarily xenophobic and racist expression, without appreciation of this more fundamental basis.  For some, not even this has dawned on them and they have supported Brexit without being able to demonstrate that it has led to any compensating advance by the working class.

Just as nationalism feeds off other nationalisms so the Brexit war of words has involved Priti Patel advocating the threat to Ireland of food shortages from a no-deal Brexit and the French threatening to deny power supplies to the Channel Islands.  Socialists must oppose all such offensive nationalist threats.  Opposition to Brexit does not mean defence of the policies of the EU but simply recognition that we do not oppose the development of capitalism by demanding it regress to a more primitive form less suited to creation of a new society.

In terms of the Protocol, we oppose the creation of a land border in Ireland as a strengthening of division on the island and recognise that this could only come about from increasing the separation of Britain from the EU, most likely from acrimonious conflict that would have the effect of dividing workers, and not only in Ireland.

Back to part 1

Brexit still not done – the Northern Ireland Protocol 1

I was in the south of England as the recent fuel crisis hit, when many petrol stations ran out of fuel and closed.  Stuck in Bath, I drove around the city looking for one that was open, then drove to nearby Chippenham where Google Maps was telling me that there were a number of stations open.  All were closed so I decided the best thing to do was to drive North, where I was heading to the ferry at Stranraer that would take me home.  My wife had cancer treatment the day after next and we really didn’t want to miss it – the treatment is keeping her alive.  I was able to get petrol on the M4 and then headed North via the M5, filling up again in a Motorway service station north of Lancaster.

So, we got home safe and sound and to the sight of petrol stations in Belfast with lots of fuel and no queues. Buying the local Irish papers in order to get up to speed on the local scene I read speculation that the Tories were going to invoke Article 16 of the Northern Ireland Protocol as a means of getting rid of it, although it doesn’t actually do this, on the grounds that the Protocol gives rise to “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist, or to diversion of trade.”

Since unionists have been declaring a crisis and organising protests that have managed to mobilise only hundreds of protestors; and trade between the North and South of Ireland has grown dramatically, albeit from a low base, their strained narrative has claimed that the grounds for unilateral action by the British to trigger Article 16 exists.

I thought to myself, if only the Article applied to Britain, where trade with the EU has fallen; ports are clogged up; goods are sent to Rotterdam and Antwerp before being unloaded and re-loaded onto smaller vessels so they can be taken to England; the shortage of lorry drivers has led to restrictions on the supply of goods with even more knock-on effects due soon; the shortage of other workers has led to a culling of animals and the shortage of all these workers has led to approval for recruitment of foreign drivers and butchers – a clear reversal of the rationale for Brexit.

But still Article 16 is waved as a magic sovereignty wand that derives its power from being a unilateral action that needs no EU negotiation or agreement, although the foresight of a goldfish is required in order to overlook that it leads to both.

The growing crisis caused by Brexit has been answered by louder and louder bellicose rhetoric, especially by Lord Frost.  This rhetoric is all the more raucus because Britain has few cards to play; the opposition(?) Labour Party is silent so the high pitch is only necessary to divert attention from real events.  Even so, Frost finds himself admitting that the British were compelled to agree to the NI Protocol because of a weak bargaining position – one glint of truth in a trough of bullshit and deception.  On this score not much has changed so rhetoric substitutes for real power.  The response to the driver shortage demonstrates this.

Not only has the British government had to beg foreign lorry drivers to return, having just told them to get lost (why would they come back?), but rules on the number of internal deliveries that foreign companies can carry out when delivering into Britain have been relaxed while the British Road Haulage industry complains that they cannot avail of the same rights when delivering into the EU.  Just like Brussels enforcing Single Market restrictions on British exports to the EU but London still not able to enforce restrictions on EU exports to Britain.

Unionist opposition also reveals its weakness not just in low numbers protesting or the absence of any queues at petrol stations, but through plummeting support for the DUP, now down to 13% from over 31% in the December 2019 Westminster election.  With Sinn Fein now the largest party it is in line to nominate the First Minister after new Assembly elections scheduled for May.

In the latest poll the DUP is the third largest unionist party, although what matters most is the division in unionism caused by the DUP collapse.  Its leader Jeffrey Donaldson has attempted to reverse this by relying on Johnson to get him a better deal, in itself a terrible admission of weakness (relying on the guy who shafted you in the first place) and also by attempting to get the rest of unionism to own the failure.

So, when I arrived back from England I came back to a joint article in the ‘Irish Times’ by Donaldson and the Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister, plus a joint statement by the ‘four main unionist leaders’ with a video to accompany it.  One I didn’t bother to watch.

The ‘Irish Times’ article was a joint statement of opposition to the Protocol by Donaldson who declares he wants it scraped because it contradicts the Belfast Agreement (which he originally opposed) and by Allister who has never supported it.

The joint statement and video to the unionist public proved only that you really can have too many leaders.  The motivation for Donaldson is obvious – ‘I may have helped get you into this mess but all the rest are now just as responsible for getting you out of it’.  For the Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie all his claims to be modernising his party and putting clear blue water between him and the DUP is exposed to ridicule as he stands beside the even more extreme TUV.

The contradictions for the TUV in uniting with supporters of the Stormont administration that it never ceases to denounce are obvious but matter less.  If the campaign fails the TUV can still blame the DUP and if it can be portrayed as any sort of victory they can own part of it.  The loyalist leader Billy Hutchinson is there to show that loyalist paramilitarism and its own particular means of exerting influence are part of the family, to be ostracised when embarrassing but embraced as a delinquent brother if required.  For Billy Hutchinson, he gets to wear a suit for the day out and a boost to mainstream credibility that has been less frequent of late.  

Where there does appear to be some genuine unity is revealed in one of the opinion poll‘s other findings, which recorded that 79% think the performance of Johnson and his NI Secretary is bad or awful.

Forward to part 2