Don’t Trust Boris Johnson’s Britain

European leaders have always been wary of Perfidious Albion. The British prime minister once again confirmed their worst fears.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Np. 10 Downing Street on Sept. 8.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson leaves Np. 10 Downing Street on Sept. 8. NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images

Back from the summer holidays, some London-based Brexit commentators quickly raised hopes for a deal with the EU. Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group wrote on Twitter: “The only Q that matters is whether @BorisJohnson believes an EU deal is in his political interest … I remain of the view that’s the case. I don’t buy the idea they’ve given up.”

Even an incendiary interview in the Mail on Sunday, in which Britain’s Chief Brexit negotiator David Frost asserted that his EU interlocutor Michel Barnier was being abandoned by his native France, didn’t move them.

The optimists spoke too soon.

A government minister declared bluntly in the House of Commons that the government intended to “break international law.”

Some said the noises from Downing Street were a “cry for help.” But if that was the bait, then came the switch. The U.K. government announced on Tuesday that it would pass legislation to unilaterally override the Withdrawal Agreement. And it wasn’t just any bit, but the most contentious part of the 177-page text: the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol.

The protocol keeps Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market for trade in goods (and some associated services), at the cost of requiring some tariffs to be paid on goods travelling from Northern Ireland to the island of Great Britain. (The U.K. then promised to compensate Northern Irish businesses for those tariffs, as long as they fell within EU wide limits to state aid for companies).

This was the deal—in case COVID-19 has robbed the country of its memory—that Boris Johnson signed last November, campaigned for in December’s general election, and which was ratified by his new majority of MPs when they passed the Withdrawal Agreement Act in January 2020.

In the best Xi Jinping style, Johnson’s spokesman announced “limited clarifications” to the treaty while a government minister declared bluntly in the House of Commons that the government intended to “break international law”—a statement that even drew a rebuke from the usually conciliatory and rarely outspoken former Prime Minister Theresa May. The legislation published later was even more radical, attempting to put itself above “any other legislation, convention or rule of international or domestic law whatsoever.”

The furious replies from abroad came instantly. The French ambassador to Ireland warned ominously that “negotiations on the future relationship would be affected.” Ireland’s foreign minister adopted the lofty iciness once used by British officials commenting on Irish rebel outrages, calling it “unwise.” The response of German TV may be best paraphrased by the old joke: “Why does the sun never set on the British Empire? Because even God doesn’t trust an Englishman in the dark.”

The joke however, is on them. The reversal should not be a surprise. Back in 2019, Johnson calmed his worried MPs by telling them not to worry about the Withdrawal Agreement; they could always change it later. Like the work of all the best charlatans, his signature on the treaty was a lie in plain sight.

Yet this is more than just the chronic unreliability of a man who won’t even disclose the number of children he has. It’s a much deeper problem, rooted in the British understanding of sovereignty. Britain likes to think its Parliament is all-powerful and sovereign: That is indeed why it had such trouble with EU law, and its enforcement by European courts. Unlike smaller countries, Britain’s memory of its pre-EU existence is as a great power—in a time when there were few constraints on its international action.

As one acquaintance said to me on Twitter: “The UK is a sovereign nation and can do what it wants, there may be prices to pay,” which would be “deemed acceptable costs.”

This is a transactional view of international relations, where there are no unbreakable rules, and unreliability is merely a cost of doing business that needs to be balanced against the benefits it brings. It suited the British Empire, which was powerful enough to absorb that cost, and this was generally how all European powers thought until 1939. Treaties were for the little guys; the big boys relied on the balance of power.

In the heyday of imperial Britain, treaties were for the little guys; the big boys relied on the balance of power.

The concept of a treaty directly contradicts the Brexiteers’ understanding of sovereignty. If a treaty is designed to control the behavior of its signatories, it cannot be unilaterally overturned by any one of them. Like any contract, it needs to be amended by mutual agreement. What’s the point, after all, of signing a deal with a country that feels itself free to renege on it?

Brexit is ostensibly a mission to free Britain of all international restraints, of which the EU is only the most obvious. The most clear-eyed Brexiteers, like my Twitter interlocutor, accept the high transaction costs that come with this freedom. Johnson dismisses them, preferring to “have his cake and eat it,” so entered into the agreement with what Jesuit theologians call a “mental reservation”—a necessary lie.

Although everyone else seems to have forgotten, the potential perfidy of Albion didn’t escape Michel Barnier’s team who made sure breaches of the Withdrawal Agreement would be punishable, as Holger Hestermeyer, an expert in international dispute resolution at Kings College London explained to me, by lump sum fines. If those are not paid, the EU can suspend parts of any other agreements it has with the U.K.

Airline routes, the rights of British trucks to drive on EU roads, the City of London’s clearing operations, and so-called data adequacy rulings vital to the U.K. tech industry, would all be at risk.

So too would a trade agreement with the United States. Any breach of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement would be treated as a hostile act by the Irish lobby, and as the Pennsylvania Congressman Brendan Boyle explained on British Radio, it is likely to sink a U.S. trade deal. And if unknown legislators don’t worry Downing Street, Johnson would do well to consider the wisdom of antagonizing another Irish Catholic from Pennsylvania who could be president in a few months: Joe Biden.

As things stand, the likely end result is no trade deal with the EU, and none with the United States, either. This wasn’t the technical detail of what Brexiteers promised in the 2016 referendum, nor what Boris Johnson promised in the 2019 election campaign. It is also unlikely to have been the deliberate aim of a government whose coronavirus response revealed that it has trouble planning for anything other than its preferred outcome.

But it is entirely in line with the transactional diplomacy and imperial-era sovereignty spirit of the Brexiteers. It also has the hallmark of the make-it-up-as-you-go-along style of a government that is led, not by a serious journalist and author like Winston Churchill, but by a former columnist who was once fired from The Times for making up a quote, and has since propelled his career by making up lies about the EU.

Garvan Walshe is a former national and international security policy advisor to the British Conservative Party and the Executive Director of TRD Policy.

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