A démarche is a formal diplomatic note. Just as flatmates don’t usually write formal letters, close allies don’t issue démarches. They certainly don’t leak them to the press. What was initially reported as a US démarche, issued by Joe Biden’s officials against Boris Johnson’s government before Biden’s arrival to the UK, should never have been allowed to happen. And even if its formal status has now been denied by the White House, that such an episode has unfolded at all shows that something has gone very wrong with Britain’s foreign policy
The stern message delivered by the US charge d’affaires Yael Lempert was sparked by the latest UK attempt to wriggle out of the Northern Ireland protocol to the Brexit withdrawal agreement. But the wider problem stems from failing to understand that countries are only as sovereign as the existence of other countries allows them to be.
I don’t want to take issue here with the UK government’s desire to revise the protocol, which it was forced to accept because time was running out under the Article 50 procedure to withdraw from the EU. If it is inherent in the concept of treaties that countries abide by them (otherwise why have them?), it’s also inherent in the concept of sovereign states that they can agree to revise them. Only the most naive observer of international relations would imagine that power politics don’t come into play when those revisions are drawn up.
The government’s problem is that the power lies with the EU. But instead of trying to persuade Brussels to “update” the protocol, Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis told the House of Commons last September that a new bill to amend the Brexit deal would break the treaty in a “specific and limited way”. After a hiatus due to the pandemic, the UK’s Brexit negotiator David Frost has now taken aim at what he calls the EU’s “legal purism”. This violates the first rule of law-breaking: don’t tell everyone about it first.
Announcing that you’ll break the law is what you do when you have impunity. Hence Donald Trump’s remark that he could “shoot somebody” on Fifth Avenue and not lose any voters. The UK government probably has domestic impunity on this issue since enough people will rally around. But dealings with the EU aren’t a matter of domestic policy.
A hardline unionist might argue that what happens in Northern Ireland should be domestic policy, but ever since the Belfast Agreement that has not been true. The conflict there was put into abeyance through ambiguity, which Brexit dispelled. Now, the Republic of Ireland is a member of the EU, and is thus in a more powerful position than the UK.
Worse for London is not only that the current US president is more pro une certaine idée de l’Irlande than any Taoiseach since Éamon de Valera, but that he has made it one of his foreign policy aims to reconstruct the international order his predecessor did so much to erode.
Τhe connection between Donald Trump and Brexit goes deeper than many Brexiteers would admit. Trump behaved like an absolute, personal sovereign. Brexit is, deep down, a national urge not to be told what to do. That’s why former Conservative cabinet minister Peter Lilley argued himself into opposing not only the EU, but the Canada trade agreement that is very similar to the Brexit actually negotiated.
The moral argument for Brexit was that EU membership meant that MPs couldn’t make the decisions the British people wanted. They were constrained by European law and the EU’s institutional structure. By joining the EU, Britain had given up sovereignty and by leaving it would take it back.
Before the EU’s creation, Britain had been able to fulfil the wishes of its voters because it was still an empire (if a declining one). If it felt sovereign, those on the receiving end of the repression of insurgencies in Kenya, Malaya and, indeed, Northern Ireland felt the opposite. Now other countries interfere in what the UK still regards as its own sphere. The EU’s demand – that the UK impose restrictions on its own domestic trade to avoid a hard Irish border – is difficult for citizens of a former empire to bear.
Johnson’s government can draw on a deep reservoir of indignation at this shift in the balance of power, so won’t suffer for this at home, but it is coming at a serious cost to its international relationships, not least with the US.
A piece of paper can’t make up for the lack of seriousness with which the UK government has approached foreign affairs. A new Atlantic Charter, announced between Johnson and Biden on Thursday (10 June), follows Britain’s declared tilt to the Indo-Pacific. A G7 agreement to establish a minimum global corporate tax rate only just preceded Chancellor Rishi Sunak looking to exempt the City of London from it. Appeals to soft power were accompanied by a cut in international development spending. Election-day gunboats were sent to defend fish.
The fish, the foreign aid cut, the financial exemption and the charter all betray a focus on the domestic politics of England. But while countries are entitled to domestic policy, this government’s domestic focus makes the UK unreliable abroad. This would be excusable perhaps were the government constrained at home, but Johnson has a parliamentary majority of 78 seats and a healthy opinion poll lead.
Soon a more intimate border question will come up. The Scottish government is demanding a second independence referendum, and Westminster could use some help from the US and EU to derail the Scottish nationalists’ plans. It had better start looking for some friends.
Garvan Walshe is a journalist and former Conservative foreign policy adviser based in Brussels.