How the UK is destroying itself over Brexit

Boris Johnson’s bad faith negotiating tactics have backfired in Europe and are driving support for Scottish independence. 

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If you’re confused about what Boris Johnson is up to, read the email he just sent to Tory supporters. “Labour sides with the EU” is the headline and it gets worse. In a fit of calculated hyperbole, Johnson accuses the EU of issuing “outrageous threats to carve up our union... put up blockades across our own country, divide our own land and change the very economic geography of our own union”.

The first thing to note is that these sentences are misleading. It was Boris Johnson who signed a deal “dividing” Northern Ireland from Britain in terms of customs rules. There will be no “blockades” but customs checks. The Good Friday Agreement already “carves up” the UK in that it gives the population of Northern Ireland the advanced right to secede and form a united Ireland.

The second thing to note is that this is a strategy. Faced with the realisation that the UK will now be a rule-taker – deal or no deal – Johnson is preparing for four years of rhetorical conflict with the EU. It’s not that ministers actively want no-deal: it’s that they no longer care whether they get a deal or default to World Trade Organisation rules only, because the economic costs are far exceeded by the Covid-19 recession and the fiscal black hole it has created.

The third thing to note is that Europe’s attitude has changed. Johnson’s threat to break the Withdrawal Agreement, and thereby international law, has been perceived both as a negotiating tactic and – because the Republic of Ireland is Europe’s front line in this dispute – an act of petty imperialist revanchism.

Though EU negotiators are patiently marking time, as a parent does with a screaming toddler, the governments and institutions on the receiving end of Johnson's flamboyant nationalist outburst have shifted their priorities. The EU’s decision to pool its economic response to the Covid-19 pandemic happened because the most important political actor – the German government – threw aside decades of fiscal conservatism. 

During 2020 something seems to have clicked inside the collective brain of the German centre-right. Its tough approach to Russia over the poisoning of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, and its sudden switch of focus away from China towards Japan in foreign policy are both examples of a new confidence and commitment. Germany, in short, knows where it’s going: towards the consolidation of the European economy, if necessary through a more assertive diplomacy and expansive fiscal policy.

The bars and restaurants of Charlottenburg, where I spent last weekend for the International Literature Festival Berlin, are buzzing. There is, of course, a strictly operated track and trace system, where the waiter who brings your Martini stands patiently as you write down your address and phone number, scrutinising each digit for clarity. But this city of 3.7 million people has experienced just 226 deaths during the pandemic.

While the UK’s furlough scheme is ending, putting four million jobs at risk, Germany's equivalent – a part-time wage subsidy scheme – has been extended until the end of 2021. Berlin – a city of freelance artists, designers and computer programmers – even introduced its own income subsidy for freelancers. Quick, generous and easy to apply for, the monthly payment has been a lifeline for the city's creative economy, which is now returning to life faster than the UK’s. 

The atmosphere of uncertainty, division and government incompetence we have become inured to, is absent in Germany. And while the UK media can’t seem to make sense of the new Brexit crisis, the German media can.

Marcus Theurer, economics editor of the influential FAZ newspaper, writes that the whole Brexit project has changed – from a “Singapore-on-Thames” experiment in deregulation to an attempt to create a state-subsidised chumocracy with no clear global purpose. “An unpredictable, torn, disoriented Great Britain,” he writes, “would not be a formidable rival in the competition between systems and locations. But neither would it be a good neighbour and trading partner for the EU.” 

Looked at from the point of view of a Sun editorial, Johnson’s position is defiant. Looked at from any one of the EU's 27 capitals it is weak. Because the UK opted to leave Europe, and Johnson’s entire pitch was that we would adopt different laws and standards, an economic border has to be drawn between the two entities. To erect it on the island of Ireland is impossible, because the EU pre-emptively rejected this as a grave threat to peace. So Johnson, to get a deal, opted voluntarily to draw that border in the Irish Sea. 

It is his deal and our European negotiating partners know it. As a result of the UK trying to renege on it, we are now looking at the real possibility that Britain will: lose all access to the biggest market in the world; be forced by an international court to accept a customs border on its own territory; and still pay the EU billions for the privilege.

In Europe’s capitals, the current flurry of rhetoric and recrimination in Westminster is seen not even as a negotiating tactic, but “Britain negotiating with itself”. A more accurate view might be: the UK destroying itself. Because not only have Johnson’s bad faith negotiating tactics backfired in Berlin and Dublin, they are driving support for Scottish independence steadily upwards. The Scottish government, despite its missteps, has looked like a model European administration in the face of Covid-19, while Johnson’s government has floundered. Now Scots, who voted for Remain by a clear majority, are handcuffed instead to a government of incompetents, spitting out xenophobia in response to all its problems.

For Labour, the sheer length of the game they will have to play over the next four years, and the tilt of the pitch, is becoming more obvious. Johnson’s confrontation with Europe is designed to pull a single organ stop: the xenophobic sentiments among old, white voters in small-town England. And he will go on pulling it, loading the blame for all future problems on the unfairness of any deal; or revelling in the economic pain that would result from tariffs and disinvestment in the case of a no-deal Brexit.

There is, in Britain – at least until Scotland secedes – an electoral majority in favour of a close economic, security and diplomatic relationship with Europe. Johnson is only in power because it is divided. We keep being urged, by sections of the orthodox left, to “reconnect with the Red Wall” and “forget Europe”. But we won’t be allowed to forget Europe, because Johnson intends to spend the next four years in a rhetorical battle with it.

Having achieved the Withdrawal Agreement, Johnson will use it as the German populist and fascist right used the Treaty of Versailles – an ever-present explanation for failure and a driver of political resentment against a foreign “other”. “International law”, in this revived right-wing mindscape, will replace “European red tape”. 

Labour did not side with the EU this week. It sided with the Britain of fairness, restraint and lawfulness. It must go on fighting for what remains the party’s policy: the closest possible economic relationship to Europe, and the nearest thing possible to the freedom of movement we are set to lose.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.

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