‘Don’t hold your breath on UK rejoining EU’

The headline above is from the columnist Newton Emerson in the Belfast nationalist newspaper ‘The Irish News’.  He notes an opinion poll recording that two-thirds of Britons want a referendum on re-joining the EU and 54 per cent would vote yes.  He then explains why it isn’t going to happen, including that the majority would not be prepared for the long re-entry negotiations in which Britain might be humiliated – compelled to join the Euro, the Schengen Agreement and lose it opt-outs and rebate.

The Tory Party won’t and can’t do it as it would destroy itself and Starmer’s Labour won’t, although Emerson is wrong to say that Labour ‘can only stay in power by burying the question.’  While the venality, incompetence and unpopularity of the Tories may see it lose office, and Labour may even gain it, the Party will not stay in office with a policy that can’t be buried.  The majority of Labour voters and members will not stay with a Party that accepts Brexit with promises to ‘make it work’ while its damage continues to do its work. 

Emerson quotes a former Irish Ambassador to the EU that Brussels would accept re-entry on the previous favourable terms of membership but that it would need a guarantee that ‘the UK wouldn’t pull the same stunt again.’  Emerson argues that given British politics and public opinion such a guarantee couldn’t be given, although joining the Euro would be as close as one could get.

Emerson proposes that the ‘only realistic alternative’ is ‘inching closer towards the single market, one deal at a time.’  He acknowledges that ‘the Swiss model’ is not a model at all and that the EU ‘hates it’; so it can hardly want to repeat it with a much larger and recalcitrant ‘partner’.

The Economist’ has a leader and main article covering similar ground and with the same general view – ‘returning to the question of membership now would reanimate the toxic polarisation of the Brexit years.’  It too doesn’t seem to appreciate that this division is not going away, because the issue is not going away, because its effects are not going away.  It sets out some metrics of what these are.

The Bank of England has estimated that Brexit has depressed investment by 25 per cent over the five years to 2021, which can only exacerbate Britain’s poor productivity record.  The think-tank Centre for European Reform estimates that by the second quarter of 2022 GDP was 5.5 per cent smaller and investment down 11 per cent.  Aston Business School estimates that trade barriers have reduced exports to Europe from 70,000 product types to 42,000.  It quotes a survey from Tony Blair’s think-tank that 70 per cent of Britons want a closer relationship with the EU. But of course, it takes two to tango.

The Economist’ sets out in more detail its proposals to evolve such a relationship but is clearer on the obstacles than on the process to achieve it.  It quotes Peter Mandelson on “reconceptualisation” of the relationship, mentioning financial services.  It quotes ex-Tory Chancellor Philp Hammond suggesting a ‘grand bargain’ on migration policy to alleviate Britain’s skill shortages in return for deeper access to the services market in the EU, plus possible return to the EU customs union.  The newspaper speculates on a ‘Norway’ type deal or something between it and a ‘Canada’ deal.

Its own plan involves making a deal on the existing Northern Ireland Protocol; making the Trade and Cooperation Agreement work; expanding its scope in its scheduled review in 2026, and ‘reimagining the British-EU relationship afresh.’   It can’t help noting, however, that this might be ‘yet another form of magical thinking’ that has afflicted the British view of its relationship with the rest of Europe for many years.  Its proposition involves the EU ‘softening its aversion to the idea of Britain cherry-picking bits of the single market’, which it should apparently do because ‘the scenario it once feared, of Britain becoming a dynamic Singapore-on-the Thames, is remote’.  In other words, Brexit has failed so the EU must provide a better one!

Again, we are informed that access to certain markets determined by Britain ‘would be a boon for a bloc that aspires to be a regulatory superpower’; ignoring that the superpower would be much less if it allowed significant rivals to cherry-pick its regulations. Mandelson is quoted on financial services which Britain is concerned to maintain its advantage, while Hammond similarly wants access for British services–including of course financial–in return for help from the EU for the British skills shortage!

The prize for ‘have cake and eat it’ goes to the Labour Party’s Rachel Reeves, who reprises the spirit of the 2016 Leave campaign by claiming that “They’re desperate for a British government that wants to engage.  I do feel we’d be knocking at an open door if we went in with a different attitude to our future relationship.”  Apparently, the Labour Party hopes for ‘a bolt-on agreement on certifying industrial goods, so that a product approved for sale in one market is automatically certified in the other.’ In other words it wants Britain to be able to set rules for the EU single market!

The Economist’ states all this while also noting that the EU lead negotiator, Michel Barnier, was determined that Britain could not cherry-pick, especially over services, and could not re-enter the single market “through the windows”. It is also noted that ‘a hard Brexit suited everyone’, although Britain has found out the hard way that a hard Brexit doesn’t actually suit, while the EU sails on. Why would the EU now save Brexit Britain from itself?  ‘The Economist’ quotes a member of Barnier’s team – “Even if you normalise the relationship, that won’t obliterate the economic interests the EU has to defend.”  A former British official states that “They are going to look at the EU with puppy eyes, and the EU will take out a gun and shoot the puppy.”  So, a “different attitude” doesn’t look like it is going to cut it.

Most immediately, nothing will be achieved unless there is a deal on the Northern Ireland Protocol and the proposed legislation that will allow the British to unilaterally repudiate the bits it doesn’t like is withdrawn or neutered.

The most recent speculation on a deal on the Protocol envisages light checks on goods entering the North from Britain, with the full rigours of the Protocol in effect not being applied.  This is a solution that almost all parties in the North would support.  They are like the Brexiteers that some of them condemn – a Brexit that ‘works’ as long as it doesn’t so that it really does deliver benefits with minimal cost.

Already the British have unilaterally extended grace periods.  But even if such a fudge was agreed, this is hardly the basis upon which new deals with the EU for the rest of the UK could be agreed.  The inevitable further development of the EU will see greater divergence between the EU and Britain with greater strains on any deal, never mind a fudged one.  The role of the EU Court of Justice is harder to fudge but it is inconceivable that any wider deals with Britain would include one

The Economist’ obviously believes that the war in Ukraine shows the necessity for unity in Europe against Russia and that the EU should accommodate such unity given Britain’s role; but the lessons of the war for the EU are not so clear.

In principle the EU and Russia (since it has become capitalist) can accommodate complimentary interests.  This does not mean that Russia could become a member–for the same reason that it cannot become a member of NATO.  It is too large, too militarily powerful, and with its own political interests and ambitions, including unwillingness to be subordinated to the United States.  The war in Ukraine has seen the EU become a casualty of the war, as the US demands sanctions that weaken the EU and strengthen the US.  There is little reason to believe this will not continue as the EU is a strong economic competitor to the US and therefore also a potential military one.  The EU has sought to avoid the latter but is being forced to confront what it means to be the former.

By contrast Britain has played an outrider role on behalf of the US in the war and has been a willing subordinate to the US for decades.  Inside the EU it would only strengthen those countries such as the Baltic states and Poland that prioritise opposition to Russia.  The core EU countries have no interest in having this split strengthened. 

The EU is an expression of the socialisation of production under capitalism which lays the basis for that socialisation to be completed through the social ownership and control by the producers – the working class.  The erosion of national divisions is a political reflection of this process and like the socialisation of production is progressive.

This doesn’t stop the EU from being capitalist, with the increased socialisation of production also raising the competition within capitalism to a new level that only socialism can overcome.

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