Friday, 5 February 2021

For exceptionalists, actions have no consequences. Even if they do.


Those who believe that the way in which problems have arisen in the implementation of the Brexit agreement with the EU would lead to any sort of rethink are very much mistaken. Cakeism lives, and any and every attempt to point out that the difficulties are an inherent and inevitable consequence of the choices which Brexiteers made simply leads to them doubling down on their demand that the EU must allow the UK to be a ‘third country’ but must not then treat it as such, and any failure by the EU to comply simply proves how evil and vengeful the EU is.

It is true that some of the detailed problems with the agreement might have been avoided had the agreement been more carefully negotiated rather than rushed through to meet an arbitrary timetable. That is one of the major reasons why most trade agreements take many years to bring to fruition. Lack of experience of trade negotiations on the UK side after delegating such discussions to the EU for decades didn’t help either. But the biggest problem, throughout the process, was a UK side whose attitude was coloured by that special sort of English exceptionalism and entitlement which assumed from the outset that the UK was entitled to special privileges.

Another fatal assumption – based on the same attitudes – has been that we could simply opt out of any part of it that we don’t like; having obtained the requisite signatures on a piece of paper, the UK could unilaterally change any bits which don’t give it what it wants. It’s an attitude which is most obvious in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol. The DUP are now campaigning to simply scrap the protocol, as though that is some sort of stand-alone action which has no impact on any other aspect of the agreement. They’re being egged on by a PM who himself is threatening to simply walk away from the protocol, as though the UK has the right to rewrite an agreement to which it has signed up. Unsurprisingly, both the Republic and the EU have said that the only option available is to look at what steps can be taken to make the protocol work more effectively. Legally, they’re right: whilst the UK can abrogate the whole treaty any time it wants (and accept the consequences), it cannot rewrite parts of an international treaty without the agreement of the other parties. Their case hasn’t been helped by the silly suggestion by the EU last week that it would activate Article 16 over vaccines. It had no right to do that without exhausting the other remediation steps set out in the agreement first, but the suggestion that they could and would didn’t help.

None of that means that it is impossible for the UK to simply scrap the protocol as the DUP are demanding. Johnson can do that at any time – but what the UK can’t then do is hold the EU to any other parts of the agreement. There would be consequences, the likeliest of which is border controls between the two parts of Ireland. Neither side might want to implement such a proposal, but it would be inevitable under international trade law covering ‘most favoured nation status’. There are other options, such as re-joining the single market, or agreeing a common regulatory regime, but all those other options have been ruled out by the UK itself. As Sherlock Holmes said, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.” And given that those demanding that the protocol be scrapped have ruled out all the other options, it leaves them arguing, in effect, for border controls between the Republic and the North. The fact that they are incapable of understanding, let alone accepting, that fact attests to the influence of the cakeism fallacy.

Under this fallacy, which has large numbers of adherents amongst the population of the UK, when all the things that Remainers said would happen come to pass, that doesn’t prove that the Leavers were wrong, it underlines how right they were all along about the EU. Anyone who believes that mere facts or logic will shake that belief is not understanding the power that fallacious beliefs have over their followers. Unless and until the leaders of this cult are removed from power, things are likely to get worse rather than better.

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