Friday, 11 September 2020

The start of hostilities?


It is, and always has been, true that any signatory to an international treaty or agreement can decide unilaterally to repudiate that treaty and walk away from any responsibility it has under such a treaty. In that sense, it is entirely lawful for the UK parliament to rip up the Withdrawal Agreement which was signed just a few short months ago. But what is not true is that one party to an agreement can unilaterally repudiate parts of such a treaty and expect other signatories to abide by what remains. It’s a corollary of the EU mantra, ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’: once one part is disagreed, everything is disagreed. Claiming, as the UK government has done, that the UK parliament has the sovereign right to reject part of an agreement after signing it may be ‘true’ in terms of domestic law, but that sovereignty does not extend to obliging the other parties to continue to abide by their side of the bargain. Under the doctrine now being promulgated by Downing Street, no international treaty would be worth the paper it was written on if any country could unilaterally opt out of any bits it doesn’t like whenever the whim takes it. Unless, of course (and I don’t rule this out in the case of the current occupant of Number 10) one believes that the UK is so special that it has rights which don’t extend to other countries. After all, constitutionally, the sovereign power of Westminster comes from the monarch, to whom it was granted by god, not by the people.

The obvious retaliatory move by the EU27 would be to impose a hard border on the Republic’s side on the isle of Ireland. Indeed, if they want to preserve the integrity of the Single Market, it’s hard to see how they can avoid doing so. The UK can – and presumably will – decide not to have border posts on its side, and allow all goods straight in. (Although, under WTO rules relating to ‘most favoured nation’, doing that in the absence of a trade agreement means that they have to allow the same access for goods from all other countries in the world, unless they intend that their first act as a member of the WTO is to breach those rules as well. I suppose that’s something else that can’t be ruled out.) Perhaps forcing the EU to create a hard border is part of the game plan – I can already hear them saying “We never wanted this – it’s those wicked Europeans doing this”. It’s just possible that, in the circumstances, such a border might not provoke a return to violence: the extreme unionists on the one hand will be pleased that their status as an integral part of the union is being protected, and the extreme republicans on the other may be less willing to attack Irish/EU border infrastructure than they would be if the border posts were British. It’s a gamble, though – and not just in terms of potential violent responses: it might also push more people towards supporting reunification in Ireland.

Failure to establish controls at the border in the absence of controls between the two islands inevitably risks the integrity of the Single Market, and I don’t rule out the possibility that, insofar as there is a cunning plan here, it is precisely that. The Brexiteers have long believed that Brexit would bring down the whole EU edifice (indeed, Farage has often said – including, according to a recent report, in a meeting with Barnier - that “the EU will not exist after Brexit”). The ‘logic’ of Brexit was always the destruction of the EU – being just outside a large bloc like the EU never made sense. They expected that Brexit would start a stampede, but to date it’s had the opposite effect as other countries gaze on in stunned amazement. From that perspective, the proposed repudiation of parts of the Withdrawal Agreement makes eminent sense. But the EU would be entirely correct in interpreting it as a hostile act by an aggressive neighbour. Things look set to get a great deal worse.


Spirit of BME said...

It is known that governments break international treaties when extraordinary events happen, such as outbreaks of hostilities and economic collapse, and they are driven back to defend their own.
When Mrs May-Day signed the original document the coming (self- inflicted) economic collapse was not a prospect and there was high confidence in economic growth. It was not loved deal, as opposition parties voted it out three times in the Commons.
What is behind all this move by The Boy Johnson is not quite clear, apart from getting it done while the news is revved up on fears of a further lockdown.
He could have many other ‘cunning plans, but the line on correcting badly worded agreement, has some credibility in light of recent events.
As for the plan of destroying the EU ,only the most rabid Brexiteers I have come across pump this out, most of them just want a Common Market ,without ‘The Project’, but Ireland might be a quick win for them, as 60% of their exports have to pass to or through the UK. Meanwhile in Ireland, looking at the new budget payments, this might strengthen the to a call to exit and join a Common Market with the UK and others.

John Dixon said...


"...but the line on correcting badly worded agreement, has some credibility in light of recent events." I'm not at all sure about that. The backstop was always intended to be a means of setting a minimum default position in the event of failing to agree a trade deal. It wasn't badly-worded, it just didn't say what the PM says it said or wanted it to say.

"As for the plan of destroying the EU ,only the most rabid Brexiteers I have come across pump this out, most of them just want a Common Market ..." But what they say and what they believe aren't necessarily the same thing. There are, I think, only two ways to move from EU to 'Common Market' (however you define that - no small matter). One is that countries break away from the EU and join with the UK in an alternative arrangement and the other is to destroy what exists. You posit that Ireland might break away - I beg to differ. If Ireland has learnt anything from Brexit it is a) that being part of a group of 27 gives it rather more clout in dealing with an increasingly rogue state on its doorstep, and b) that the English nationalists behind Brexit have never really accepted Irish independence, and would never treat Ireland as anything remotely resembling an equal in any new alternative arrangement. I'm not going to argue that there aren't people within the EU27 who have concerns over the direction of the EU project, but all the evidence is that they are broadly happy to remain members. A Common Market which includes only England and its subject nations (and that is clearly the way they are seen looking at the Internal Market Bill) is a minnow compared to the EU. Destroying the Single Market (which is what demanding an open back door effectively does) is an entirely logical move for Brexiteers. Not admitting it as an objective - given their propensity to dissemble - is hardly evidence that it isn't their aim.