Boris Johnson is learning he can’t have everything wants – and we’re left picking up the pieces

Riding roughshod over the Withdrawal agreement will have serious consequences for the country.

Levelling up

Boris Johnson wants a free trade agreement with the EU that he cannot have. The deal he wants, with tariff-and-quota-free access to the single market but no commitments on labour and environmental standards or state aid, is not on offer from the EU and never will be.

However hard he and his advisors complain of poor treatment the reality is that the EU are well aware that were they to offer such a deal they would put their own industries at risk. The EU is already giving tariff-free access to UK goods and maybe preferable access to services compared to WTO rules. The possibility of the UK damaging EU industry by subsidising those tariff free goods means that the EU includes state aid provisions. An agreement without level playing field provisions will never happen.

This is the backdrop to Johnson’s decision to use the UK Internal Market bill to force a confrontation. In the eyes of the Government, the bill merely clarifies parts of the Withdrawal Agreement relating to the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement Johnson made last autumn to place a customs border down the Irish Sea, allowing Great Britain to leave the EU Customs Union while preventing a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In the eyes of the EU and international observers, the bill goes much further, superseding the Withdrawal Agreement in UK law and reneging on key commitments on border operation. The consequences could be far-reaching. The Withdrawal Agreement is a binding international treaty and an EU legal text. The UK would in breach of its obligations, hardly a good look when Johnson wants to persuade other nations to trust him to abide by the provisions of new free trade agreements. As his predecessor Theresa May said, in these circumstances how could Johnson ‘reassure future international partners that the UK can be trusted to abide by the legal obligations of the agreements it signs?’

There would be consequences too for the island of Ireland. A primary goal of the EU throughout the negotiations has been the avoidance of a renewed hard border on the island. The agreement as it stands fulfils this and their second aim of ensuring the integrity of the single market. Under the Withdrawal Agreement goods going from the UK mainland to Northern Ireland would be subject to checks and customs declarations and, in the event no future agreement is reached, tariffs, although these could be claimed back should goods stay in Northern Ireland.

Without these checks the EU would not be certain that goods from the UK mainland were not entering the single market, with the result that border infrastructure on the island itself would be needed. The implications for peace are obvious.

The EU have been clear that any divergence from the Withdrawal Agreement would mean the end of negotiations on the future relationship. Why negotiate a future agreement if one party has proved itself unable to abide by a previous one signed mere months ago? Even worse for the UK, Johnson going ahead with his threat would imperil agreements with other countries and end any chance of an agreement with the US. Republicans and Democrats agree on very little but on one thing they are united – their commitment to the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. Johnson’s move would imperil both.

The question then is what Johnson is doing. He is not unaware of the implications of stepping back from the Withdrawal Agreement. He cannot seriously believe that the EU will be threatened into accepting his terms for a free trade agreement. He is unlikely to believe that the EU will reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. He agreed it in full knowledge of its implications for the UK’s integrity and signed it anyway.

The answer, as ever with Brexit, comes back to the politics. The Brexit ultras in the Conservative Party are unhappy. They believe the Withdrawal Agreement to be a millstone that keeps the UK subject to EU regulations and to an extent they have a point.

The Agreement states that the UK must apply EU law on state aid to the goods trade in Northern Ireland. This means the British government is obliged to notify Brussels of any state aid decision, including those that relate to businesses in Great Britain, that might affect businesses in the region — a potentially far-reaching obligation that Brexiters say is not compatible with fully reclaiming sovereignty. Given that many businesses in Great Britain sell goods in Northern Ireland this could impact a large part of the British economy even if Johnson refuses to sign up to a free trade agreement on the grounds that he does not want to abide by EU state aid rules

Further, Northern Irish businesses must complete export summary declarations when they send goods over to mainland Great Britain; Brexiters say this is not compatible with the promise that Northern Ireland will have ‘unfettered access’ to the UK’s internal market.

Johnson now says that the Withdrawal Agreement ‘never made sense’. His problem is not only that he negotiated and signed it but also that last December a central plank of his election pitch to voters was his ‘great new deal’ that would allow the UK to ‘build a new relationship based on free trade’. It’s one or the other, but it can’t be both.

What Johnson wants is not yet clear. Given his reputation for spur of the moment decisions and making things up as he goes along, he may not have up his mind. What is true is that unlike most instances of breathless Brexit headlines this time it’s serious. Brandon Lewis MP, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, admitted that Johnson’s changes do ‘break international law in a very specific and limited way’.

The bottom line is that the UK Government intends to break part of a treaty it negotiated and voted for. Specific and limited doesn’t matter. Governments respect international treaties or they do not. The UK Government does not. This will have serious consequences.

Mike Buckley is Director of Labour for a European Future.

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