It was with some astonishment last week that I watched Dominic Raab, Secretary of State for Foreign and…(zzzz), admit to a parliamentary committee that he’d not even read the Good Friday Agreement. It wasn’t the fact that he hadn’t read it that left me aghast – Tory cabinet members reputedly don’t read anything longer than a page in length and/ or written in a font smaller Arial 24; and dammit, why should they? Rather, it was his belligerence and arrogance that blew me away.
That he doesn’t seem to think it important (even paramount) that he read a 35 page document that has become such a snagging point in on-going deal negotiations with the EU that it could prove the death knell on a UK/EU trade deal tells you something. That he didn’t even pretend to have read it, tells you more. The Tories clearly believe that the hugely contentious Irish border issue is the stick that will beat the EU right down into eventual submission and a sodding piece of paper, negotiated by Tony Blair, the Irish and the Americans way back in 1998, isn’t going to stop them from weaponising it. The government is playing poker with the EU and the stakes on the table are the economic welfare of the nation, the integrity of the kingdom and peace in our islands.
The Good Friday Agreement, (GFA) is a peace agreement signed by the UK, the Irish Government and political parties in Northern Ireland to bring a halt to the ethno-nationalist conflict that had been ravaging the territory since the 1960s (the “Troubles”). This agreement and the continued integration with the single market eventually paved the way for the removal of the militarized border that divided the island. To reopen this angry and painful wound (as would be the case if the UK fails to get a deal with the EU) would have perilous consequences for the peoples of the UK and Ireland.
So, only a year after happily ratifying a Withdrawal Agreement (the deal that outlined the terms on which the UK would leave the EU while honouring the provisions of the peace treaty) and still without an “oven ready” trade deal in sight, Boris Johnson now wishes to re-negotiate parts of the deal – including the elements pertaining to the customs arrangements on the Irish border.
Let’s put aside for a moment the fact, that in trying to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement vis a vis the border, that the UK government is willfully breaking countless international laws and reducing to rubble any trust and credibility the UK commands internationally. Pacta sund servanda, the idea that treaties are executed in good faith is one of the foundation stones of international law, seems to have been cast aside by the Tories.
The real issue is the UK’s tendency to repeatedly shift the goal posts. The EU finds itself trapped between a rock and a hard place and the UK has been using this to continually push back in its dialogue with the union. On it’s eastern borders the EU is dealing with mass migration from war torn Syria and the Russians running interference. From the south, migration from Africa. On top of that, slowing economies further retarded by the Covid pandemic – and of course the physical impact of the virus itself. The EU is being stressed tested like never before. Does it really need more agro from the west; that too only 21 miles away?
The last thing the EU wants is a failing state across the Channel. Food shortages, mass unemployment, social unrest and a return of the Irish troubles are all potential outcomes of a no deal scenario. Worse still, for cross-Channel tensions to escalate to a point of conflict between the UK and the EU itself. The avoidance of war in Europe was, after all, a cornerstone reason for the formation of the EU in the first place.
It harbours other fears too. Should the EU ex-communicate the UK completely, it would be freeing it from having to comply with any of the EU financial directives – especially the ones pertaining to tax evasion and money laundering. The UK (well London really) could set itself up as a low tax/ tax-free principality and turn itself into a money magnet – for clean money or otherwise. Having the UK go rogue and turn itself into a tax haven right on its doorstep, draining cash out of the EU and compromising the competitiveness of its banking services sector is something the EU would no doubt like to avoid.
Realizing all this, the UK has been effectively water torturing the EU since the referendum of 2016. A slow drip, drip of ‘will they, won’t they?’ Agree. Renege. Agree. Renege. I’ve seen the same technique used successfully in business albeit making negotiations tortuous and rather acrimonious. In my experience, counterparties who use this method of negotiation once, will use it again and again. They do not make good business bedfellows.
When the UK joined the Common Market, as it was known then, it arrived as the poor man. Now, having prospered for almost 50 years under its auspices, the UK has decided to leave (well 52% of the UK has decided) which is fair do’s. However, rather than behave in a collegiate manner, we have decided to blackmail our former partners and gamble the fate of the nation in a reckless game of chicken. It’s entirely possible that this risky and unsavoury strategy will get us a trade deal, albeit one that will be less attractive than full EU membership but at least we will avoid a hard border in Ireland.
However, Covid may have flipped the odds in the EU’s favour somewhat. Rising unemployment, continued lockdowns and the prospect of further deaths has reduced the UK publics desire for a Brexit at all cost. There’s even the beginnings of a Tory back bench revolt against the renegotiation of the WA. Furthermore, Keir Starmer taking up the reins of the Labour Party has only added to the government’s woes. If the EU bides its time, it may actually be Boris Johnson et al who end up capitulating. To quote former British PM, Harold Wilson, “Events dear boy, events…”
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.