From Prospect Magazine . . .
POLITICS BREXIT EUROPEAN UNION NORTHERN IRELAND
Brexit means Brexit: Theresa May’s slogan was truer than she knew
The former prime minister’s hollow catchphrase captured a fundamental truth—just not the one she thought it did
October 21, 2021
Sometimes the complexity of the present can be most effectively explained by the simplicity of the past. Britain’s current troubles began with Theresa May’s gnomic insistence in 2016 that “Brexit means Brexit”—a tautological phrase designed to buy herself time to understand it. Insofar as it meant anything, it meant that we would fully leave the European Union and its institutions. With Brexit now a reality, however, the true consequences of that choice are becoming clear.
Witness the chaos. Tensions over the Northern Ireland Protocol have been mounting ever since the UK formally left the structures of the EU on 31st December last year, and last week saw further escalation. In spite of significant EU concessions to reduce the level of checks on goods passing from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, the Brexit minister David Frost delivered a combative speech in which he demanded the wholesale rewriting of the Protocol.
The UK objects to an internal border in the Irish Sea, to oversight of the Protocol by the EU court, and, of course, to the community divisions sown by the deal in the first place. The problem is that it was warned of all three, loudly and repeatedly, and went ahead with the agreement anyway. Indeed, the government not only negotiated the Protocol but eulogised it, campaigned for it and won an 80-seat majority in parliament on the back of it.
If the government was so adamant that Northern Ireland should not have a different customs and regulatory framework from the rest of the UK, or that Northern Ireland should not be subject to the jurisdiction of the EU court, it should have made that abundantly clear to the EU and not signed the deal.
But that, of course, is precisely the point. If the British government had insisted upon those points in 2019, the EU would never have agreed to a deal in the first place. It was only because the UK gave way on those demands that it was able to secure the “oven-ready” agreement Boris Johnson was so proud of.
The arguments about Northern Ireland were, in fact, rehearsed on a weekly basis for almost four years after the referendum. The fundamental point was that the government wanted to leave both the single market and customs union, and as such, erect a trade border with the EU. That border would either have to separate Northern Ireland from Ireland or Northern Ireland from Great Britain, and since almost everyone agreed it could not be the former, it had to be the latter. Brexit meant Brexit not just in a slogan but on the ground: red lines in the negotiating room would necessitate physical lines in reality.
May’s customs union backstop entailed a sea border for regulation only. Johnson, prioritising absolute sovereignty, hardened it. Both compromised Northern Ireland’s political stability and the UK’s territorial integrity so they could end the migration rights of Polish plumbers.
Yet the government’s self-imposed trade barriers are not only proving difficult in Northern Ireland. It also dislikes the new border frictions with the continent. Ministers initially delayed implementing checks on goods coming over the Channel until this October, and last month pushed them back again until next year. If and when the controls do come, they will add even more friction to supply chains. The EU, for its part, has taken full competitive advantage: its exporters can freely send their goods to the UK while British rivals face the full suite of bureaucracy in the other direction. We did not, perhaps, want to take back control after all.
Meanwhile, the government is rushing to offer more visas to foreign lorry drivers and butchers as the full effects of the labour shortage take hold. And yet applications have been laughably few in number. Many of the drivers who used to work here no longer want to. Stripped of EU settlement and employment rights in the UK, they appear to be finding more attractive opportunities elsewhere.
The problems stem from two key truths: that as a country we actually like seamless trade, and that our membership of the EU facilitated it. Far from being a constant bureaucratic block on our ancient liberties, Britain’s mythologised dream of unfettered commerce came closest to fruition through laws in Brussels.
It follows that the government is doing all it can to keep what it liked about the EU. That, in turn, produces the old, relentless logic. Namely, that we can pick and choose which rules we follow, based on which ones we happen to like; enjoy the benefits of EU integration without the obligations; ultimately, act like a member state or a fully detached third country, according to whim.
And yet, each time, the government defeats itself—because it breaks an international treaty, or hands more power to the EU, or fails to secure the agreement of the people it aims to attract. The approach has never and will never work.
The desperation of the government’s strategy disguises a basic reality. Brexit is not actually about autonomy. It is not about facilitating free trade. It is not about making us wealthier. It, in fact, does precisely the opposite of every single promise voters endorsed. When it comes to it, Brexit just isn’t much fun, so the government must do everything possible to disguise its effects.
But in the end, this leads to an even simpler revelation. Brexit is the product of basic, inescapable consequences. If you erect trade barriers, trade will be harder. If you gut the workforce, there will be fewer people to do necessary jobs. If you leave a club, you can no longer enjoy the perks of membership. The tragic irony of the last five years is that May’s first, emptiest slogan was both the truest and hardest to accept: Brexit really does mean Brexit.
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Jonathan Lis is a political commentator
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