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Brexit Entering Dramatic Second Act

Can a chaotic “Crash Out” Brexit in December 2020 be avoided?


John Bruton | Oped Column Syndication


“Let’s get Brexit done” is Boris Johnson’s election slogan. His implication is that, once he gets a working parliamentary majority to ratify his revised Withdrawal Treaty, Brexit will be quickly done and dusted.

This is over optimistic, to put it mildly.

There are three realistic outcomes to the Election: a Tory majority ( the most likely scenario at this stage), a Labour led government with the support of other parties, or a  hung Parliament in which no one can command a majority and form a government.

Even if Boris Johnson wins a majority, to get Brexit done he will still have to conclude a very complex trade negotiation with the EU, within an almost impossibly tight self imposed time line, by December 2020 (the end of the post Withdrawal Transition period).

He has tied himself be a commitment to Nigel Farage that there will be no extension of the December 2020 deadline. This is how he got the Brexit Party withdrew its candidates in all Tory held constituencies.

Reneging on that promise, because the negotiation need more time, would be costly for Boris Johnson, especially as it would  also extend the period in which the UK would have to continue contributing to EU funds.

If he were to change his mind and look for an extension of the post Withdrawal transition period beyond 2020, he will have to give notice of this by July of next year. The Withdrawal Treaty (Article 132) only allows for one extension of either one or two years. This is different from Article 50 extensions on which there is no legal limit.

If the deal is not done before the end of the (very short) transition period, then the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal at all. Remember this Trade deal will have to be ratified in the parliaments of all the EU member states, unlike the Withdrawal deal which only needed ratification by the European Parliament. So a crash out/no deal scenario is a major risk.

The implications of this for Ireland, and for the UK itself would be grave.

This is only one scenario, the Tory majority scenario. The other  scenario concerns  what happens if Boris Johnson fails to get a majority.

Obviously if he fails , the next steps will  have to be decided by a replacement government. But who will head such a government, and what will be their Brexit policy? Neither question can be answered at this stage.

It is unlikely that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party can have a majority on its own.  But Labour might be able to form a majority with support from the Scottish National Party, in return for a pledge to hold a referendum on Scottish independence.

Another possibility is that Labour could make an arrangement with the Liberal Democrats, but they would want a Prime Minister other than Jeremy Corbyn.

That could happen. If a majority of MPs said, in writing, that they wanted as Prime Minister, an alternative named Labour Party MP, not the leader , the Queen would call on that MP to form a government.

Either of these Labour led alternative governments would hold another referendum on Brexit . It might also seek amendments to the existing Withdrawal Treaty before holding that referendum.

This process would take a year or more to complete, so a lengthy extension of Article 50 would have to be sought. Meanwhile to UK would continue to contribute to EU funds.

All this would be quite messy, but it would be  preferable to a crash out, no deal, Brexit a year from now, which might occur if a majority Tory government were to make unrealistic trade demands of the EU.

A third possibility is that no potential Prime Minister could be assured of a majority in Parliament. Given that the UK now has a 5 party system, rather than the 2 party one it had for the past century, this is a real possibility. The Fixed Term Parliament Act requires the calling of another Election, 14 days after a no confidence vote, if no  government can secure the confidence of Parliament within those 14 days.

But let’s acknowledge that, at the moment, the most likely outcome is a Tory majority government. What happens when it proceeds to implement the revised Withdrawal Agreement and negotiate a Free Trade Agreement(FTA) with the EU?

Given that the new Tory Parliamentary Party will be more radically pro Brexit than the old one, the UK negotiating position on the FTA   could be very demanding and very difficult for the EU to accept. Some of the new Tory MPs might even prefer a “no deal” on ideological grounds.

Before negotiations with the UK begin, the EU side will have to secure a negotiating mandate from the 27 member states.

This will not be easy. Many states will have sensitive issues vis a vis the UK, for example: fisheries for Spain, agriculture for France, rules of origin for all members, and, crucially,  the maintenance of a level playing field for competition between firms inside the EU and those in the UK.

Boris Johnson has said that, for him, the UK being able to have different environmental, social and product standards is the “whole point “of Brexit.

There are real fears that UK would try to undercut the EU in these fields.

So the EU will demand firm justiciable guarantees in the FTA that this will not happen. They will not take anything on trust. They will want a court to decide.

Likewise, the EU will want justiciable guarantees that the UK will not give subsidies to its industries, of a kind that would not be permitted in the EU.

The EU demand of binding arbitration will raise an allergic issue for Brexiteers.  The idea, that a “foreign court” might tell them what to do, is anathema to them.

If that is not agreed, it is hard to see how the EU could give up the possibility of introducing tariffs on UK exports to the EU, to level up the playing field.

Similar problems arise for agriculture and fisheries. The UK needs to decide what sort of farm policies it will have and if these will depart radically from EU norms.

If the UK tries to stop access for EU trawlers to its fishing grounds, it cannot expect tariff free access to EU markets for UK fish exports. Physical confrontations at sea are a real possibility.

There will also have to be a negotiation about cooperation between UK and Europol, and about money laundering.

The position of Norway, will have to be considered. It contributes to EU funds in return for access to the Single Market. The UK cannot expect more, for a lesser contribution, than Norway makes.

The position of countries like Japan and Canada, who have trade agreements with the EU, will have to be considered. They will look for any concessions the UK is given, other things being equal.

The earliest that the two sides would even be ready to start negotiating these difficult questions would be March 2020. On that basis, it is hard to see how it could all be wrapped up by December of next year.

Remember the Canada Agreement with the EU took eight YEARS to negotiate, and the political atmosphere between Canada was much better, and the stakes much less, than is now the case between the UK and the EU.

Brexit is far from done. It is entering its dramatic second Act.


John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland  (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.


In Europe, the Era of Easy Decisions is Over

The EU’s strategic weight in the world will be reduced by the absence of the UK, as the EU is losing a relatively young, diverse and creative member state. 

[John Bruton | Oped Column Syndication]


Make no mistake about it, the latest version of Brexit is a very hard Brexit. The UK Government has abandoned the legally binding commitment in the previous deal to align with EU regulatory standards to the greatest extent possible. That is now dropped in favour of a political aspiration.

The more the United Kingdom diverges from the European Union standards the greater is the likelihood that the EU will have to place tariff and other barriers in the way of UK imports to the EU, and now also to Northern Ireland. The problem will be particularly acute for agricultural goods.

The EU/UK trade negotiation has yet to begin, but I believe it will be both lengthy and difficult. This is a direct result of the “red lines” for Brexit chosen by the UK (no custom union membership, no single market membership and no European Court of Justice jurisdiction). This was a legitimate choice for the UK to make, but the costs of the choice are yet to be revealed and understood. When they are, it will be too late to change course.

Many in the UK say they just want to “get Brexit over with”. The impatience is understandable, but the truth is that agreeing the Withdrawal Treaty will not actually get Brexit “over with”. The additional bureaucracy will be permanent. If there is not to be a no deal crash out, the transition period will have to be much long than the end of 2020, because the trade negotiation will only be in its early stages by then.

The only way to get  the agony of Brexit over with, would be to revoke Brexit. There is little popular support for that, so Brexit will drag on and preoccupy British politics for years.

By choosing a harder Brexit than Mrs May, and agreeing that the controls will be in the Irish sea, Boris Johnson has chosen to prioritize the interests of  hardline Brexiteers in England over the interests of the DUP in Northern Ireland. Such a choice was inherent in Brexit, which is why it will remain a puzzle for historians to discern why the DUP chose to support Brexit with such enthusiasm in the first place.

THE WORLD AFTER BREXIT

I would like to turn now to the world after Brexit, and about the European Union, of which we will continue to be a member and in whose success we will now have a disproportionate interest.

The world has become a much more unpredictable place than it was 10 years ago.

The era of easy decisions may be over.

A European country, Ukraine, has been successfully invaded by it neighbour, Russia, breaking solemn undertakings that had been given. We have been reminded of the importance of defence.

There is widespread evidence of interference in elections and democratic processes by authoritarian regimes in other parts of the world. Voting software is being infected. Campaigns are being hacked. National rules on election spending can be circumvented via the social media.

The United States has created doubt around its defence commitments to Europe. It has walked away from its Kurdish allies in Syria, and Europe was not able to fill the gap, although the refugees from that conflict are more likely to end up in Europe than in America. In fact Europe is dependent on Turkey and North Africa to curb mass migration to the southern shores of the EU.

The EU has not developed a migration policy, which, if properly organised , could bring dynamism to our continent to compensate for the loss of dynamism that will inevitably flow from the ageing of the native European population.

The US is undermining the rules based international order in the field of trade. It is refusing to allow the appointment of replacement judges to the WTO’s appellate court, which will soon lead to that court ceasing to function. This is happening just at the time that our nearest neighbour may find itself relying on the WTO once its post Brexit transition period expires.

THE RISE OF CHINA

China is returning to the dominant position it held in the world economy in the two millennia up to 1800.

It is doing this on the strength of its human capital, not its physical capital. It is educating more engineers that the US and the EU combined.

It is doing it through its competitive and  innovative firms, not through its monopolistic state enterprises. Chinese R and D spending will exceed US Rand D this year and far exceeds EU R and D.

It is ahead of everyone in 5G communications, at the time the world economy is becoming ever more digital.

Chinese firms own Volvo, Pirelli and recently bought the firms supplying robots to the German car industry. EU could not buy the equivalent Chinese firms.

Chinese military spending exceeds that of all EU states combined and is already half that of the US.

If the US thinks it can use trade policy to arrest Chinese development, it is probably making a mistake.

But the US is right to insist on fair competition. China must be treated in the WTO as a developed country, and not get concessions intended for much poorer countries.

In its response to the Chinese challenge, the EU should maintain its robust competition policy and should not try to pick industrial winners from Brussels.

THE RESPONSE OF EUROPE

Europe would be much better placed to defend its own interests, and to act as a balancing power in the world, if the euro functioned as a global reserve currency.

To achieve that, we need to create a Capital Markets Union and complete the Banking Union. This requires a harmonisation of company insolvency rules throughout the EU or the Eurozone.

The Eurozone must have a capacity to cope with localized shocks and to prevent contagion.  We need viable proposals for a Eurozone wide reinsurance of bank deposits, and Eurozone wide reinsurance of the unemployment  benefit systems of member states..

BREXIT IS A SETBACK FOR EUROPE……..STAGNATION MUST BE AVOIDED

There is no doubt but Brexit has been a setback for Europe.

True, the EU had maintained its unity and stability, in stark contrast to the way in which the UK system has been convulsed by the divorce. But that does not take away from the fact that we are losing a relatively young, diverse and creative member state.

The EU’s strategic weight in the world will be reduced by the absence of the UK.

The population of the remaining members of the  EU are, in global terms, relatively elderly, pessimistic and risk averse. This could lead the EU to make big mistakes.

I give some examples of this.

Many member states refuse even to contemplate the amendment of the EU Treaties because of the risk of defeats in referenda. If that remains the attitude, the EU will simply stagnate. Every successful human organisation must have the capacity to change its rules if this is demonstrably necessary. The US is unable to amend its constitution and we can see the problems that has led to.

Unlike the US, the EU has been able to attract and accommodate new member states over the last 50 years. At last week’s Summit, France the Netherlands and Denmark blocked the opening of accession talks with North Macedonia even though that country has done everything the EU asked to qualify, even changing its name, which was a highly sensitive matter.

The fact that this rejectionism was led by President Macron, who makes great speeches about European integration, is particularly disquieting. I hope he changes his mind. Yes, we need tougher means of ensuring that the rule of law in respected in the most rigorous way but that could have been dealt with in the negotiations with North Macedonia, which would have gone on for years any way.

THE SINGLE MARKET

We must defend the integrity of the EU Single Market, at the borders of the European Union and throughout its territory.

Ireland must be seen to be, fully compliant with EU Single Market rules. Otherwise Ireland’s geographic position will be used against it by competitors for the investment.

The EU Single Market is not complete. There is much more to do.

An April 2019 Study “Mapping the Cost of non Europe” estimated that

  • completing the  classic single market would add  713 billion euros to the EU economy.
  • completing Economic and Monetary Union would add a further 322 billion, and
  • completing a digital single market a further  178 billion euros.

A more integrated energy market would save a further 231 billion and a more integrated EU approach to fighting organised crime would be worth 82 billion.

Cross border VAT fraud is costing 40 billion. This will be an area of special concern in regard to traffic between Britain and Northern Ireland.

These are some of the reasons why we must complete the Single Market.

Services account for three quarters of EU GDP.

But  we have been very slow in creating a single EU market for services.

In the field of Services, only one legislative proposal had been adopted during the term of the outgoing Commission, a proportionality test for new regulations on professions.

All other proposals are blocked.

I think that a major obstacle is vested interests in national or regional governments, who do not want to give up power.

By completing the Single Market, the EU can show that it has much more to offer to the world than a post Brexit Britain.

To help complete the Single Market, Ireland should be open to qualified majority voting on energy and climate matters.

We should also be open to carefully defined individual amendments to the EU Treaties if they can be shown to the public to deliver real benefits.

A LEVEL PLAYING FIELD

The existing Withdrawal Agreement protects UK environmental, product and labour standards, in a way that a mere Trade Agreement will never do.

In any trade negotiation with a post Brexit Britain, maintaining a level competitive playing field will be vital.

No subsidies, no cartels, and no undercutting of EU standards must be insisted upon.

Likewise the UK must not be allowed to undercut the EU on worker protection, environmental and product quality standards. The UK will have to set up bureaucracies to devise and enforce UK standards. 200 EU environmental laws will have to be replaced by the UK. Westminster will be busy.

EU WIDE DEMOCRACY

It is over 40 years since the first European Parliament election.

While the  EP elections are hotly contested, the contests are often really about national issues.

A genuine EU wide debate does not take place, because the elections are confined within in national constituencies. An EU “polis” or public opinion has not yet been created.

My own view is that the President of the Commission should be elected separately from the Parliament, using a system of proportional representation (PR).

We must have strong national democracy if we are to have a strong EU, and we must have strong national democracy if we are to have strong states.

There are remarkable differences in the level of confidence people in Europe feel in their own national democracy. According to a recent Pew Poll, 72% of Swedes have confidence in how their national democracy works. Within the Netherlands confidence in their system was  68%, in Poland it was 61% and in Germany 65%.

But , at the other end of the spectrum, only  31% of British, and 32% of Spaniards and Italians had confidence in their own democratic systems.

To build confidence in the EU, we also need to rebuild confidence in democracy itself, at every level of governance.


John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland  (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.


Ukraine: Recent Election and EU Membership

Ukrainian leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

[John Bruton | Oped Column Syndication]


The desire for free and fair elections, through which politicians can be held to account, is widespread in the former Communist world.  We have seen this with the arrest in Moscow of over 1000 people, demonstrating against the arbitrary disqualification of candidates for local elections in the city of Moscow, including of a candidate who won 27% of the vote in the last  election.

Corrupting elections was part of the armoury of the Soviet state, and it is a habit that has persisted, long after Communism itself has fallen .

After the more hopeful Yeltsin years, Russia, the biggest Republic of the former Soviet Union, is reverting to Soviet electoral habits. But the second biggest former Soviet Republic, Ukraine, is taking a  very different course.

Recent free and fair elections in Ukraine are undoubtedly being watched closely by opposition figures in Russia.

If Ukraine can make a successful democratic transition, it becomes harder for President Putin to argue that Russia must retain a more authoritarian system. Another neighbour of Ukraine, Viktor Orban of Hungary, will also have to take note.

I have recently had the opportunity of spending a week in Ukraine, as one of a large number of international observers of their Parliamentary Election on 21 July.

The consensus among observers was that these Elections, called early by the newly elected President Zelensky, were both free and fair.

Votes  in Ukraine are cast in secret, and when the polls close, are counted openly, in the local polling stations themselves. From my observation, these tasks were carried out conscientiously and transparently.

This is not to say that Ukrainian democracy is free of problems.

On a per capita basis , Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. Even Moldova is slightly better off. The country’s growth rate is well below potential.

The country is at war, a war that has cost 13000 lives so far. In response to Russian armed interference, Ukraine has had to develop a large army of its own, almost from scratch.

Yet it depends for income, on transit fees for Russian gas, being piped through Ukraine to customers in the EU. Its  public finances are not in good order, it has had to get help from the IMF, and has had to increase fuel prices to its own citizens as part of the IMF programme.

Like many former Communist states, including ones already in the EU, it suffers from endemic corruption.

Fighting corruption is one of the goals of the new President. He is handicapped in this effort by the lack of a professional non political civil service, and  of an independent, properly resourced, courts system. These deficiencies inhibit foreign direct investment, because investors need to know honest and efficient courts will be there to protect their legal rights, before they put their money at risk

MPs are immune from legal proceedings while serving as MPs, and this privilege has attracted some people into politics in pursuit of their private interests, rather than the public good. The President has promised to end this immunity, but he has got to get the MPs to vote for this.

While the election itself was free and fair, the television coverage of the campaign was not. Ukrainians rely heavily on television to inform themselves about politics. Television stations tend to be controlled by rival oligarchs, and these oligarchs often are politicians in their own right. Rules requiring balanced coverage during election campaigns are not properly enforced.

Ukraine has an Association Agreement with the EU, which is described as “the most ambitious the EU has with any non EU member state”. Indeed this agreement may serve as a model for a future UK Agreement with the EU, whenever the tortuous Brexit process in concluded.

But there are clear signs that Ukrainians will not be satisfied , in the long run, with a mere Association Agreement with the EU, however ambitious it may be. Their goal is to be a full voting member state of the EU.  When they signed the EU Association Agreement, they rejected President Putin’s offer to join his proposed Eurasian Union. Indeed it was that rejection that triggered the Russian invasion of Crimea and of parts of eastern Ukraine. So, Ukraine has paid a high price for its EU choice.

It also is a very big country, with over 40 million people.

It may have been a privileged “vassal”, or first daughter, of the Russian Empire in the past. But it has decided to turn its back on  that and has set itself the goal of joining the EU instead, and not in a secondary role. Its leaders are using the goal of EU membership as the spur to get their voters to accept uncomfortable reforms.

But the prospect, however long term, of EU membership for Ukraine is far from simple for the EU.

In 2001, the EU enlarged itself very quickly and took in many new member states in central and eastern Europe. Some of these countries had unresolved  post Communist problems of the kind still besetting Ukraine…corruption, weak courts, poor public administration, organised crime and oligarchical control of the media.

The EU is, in its essence, a set of uniform rules, on the basis of which its citizens enjoy freedoms across a whole continent. But, if the enforcement of these rules can be corrupted through weak or politicised courts or by bad administration, these EU wide freedoms cease to mean anything.

So until the EU is satisfied it has got on top of  the corruption and rule of law problems it already has among  some of its own existing members, like Hungary, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria, it will be very  slow in admitting new members, like Ukraine, where the same problems are unresolved.

The EU is in a stronger position to insist of high standards in a country, like Ukraine, which is still looking for membership. It is harder to insist with countries that are already full voting members of the club.  Existing members can and will used their votes in the Council of Ministers to block EU sanctions for rule of law, or related, breaches of EU standards.

Getting these rule of law issues right will be the number one priority of the new Von der Leyen Commission, even ahead of Brexit.

Until it does that, the EU cannot credibly offer hope of membership to countries like Ukraine, Northern Macedonia and Albania. Without such hope, these countries could turn away from the EU,  and other global players, such as China, Turkey or Russia, could take the EU’s place.


John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland  (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.


Amid Worsening Crisis with Russia, Georgia Conducts Military Exercises with USA

The USA gradually changed the orientation of the exercises it carried out in Georgia to reflect more what Georgia wanted: the ability to fight Russia.

[Joshua Kucera | Eurasianet]


About 1,500 American troops are in Georgia for joint military exercises, a show of support amid a festering crisis with Russia. The exercises, Agile Spirit 2019, are the seventh iteration of drills led by the USA and Georgia but which in recent years also have included other countries.

The drills are aimed at getting partner militaries acquainted with deploying to Georgia and operating alongside Georgian troops; a significant part of the exercises is in fact getting the USA equipment into Georgia.

Over the years the exercises have steadily grown in scale and ambition; this year’s version of Agile Spirit, which formally kicked off July 27, will reportedly be the largest yet, with 3,000 troops total from Georgia, the USA, and 12 other countries (all of them NATO members except Ukraine). The USA contingent is a bit larger than in last year’s exercises, when 1,400 Americans took part.

When they were first conceived in the 2000s, joint exercises with the USA were aimed at getting Georgian troops ready for deployments to USA-led missions to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the Georgians would patrol or guard facilities.

But the 2008 war over South Ossetia exposed the Georgian military’s “inability to push back the attacks of Russian tank and aviation,” said Irakli Aladashvili, a Georgian military expert, in an interview with the news website Caucasian Knot. Over the following years, the USA gradually changed the orientation of the exercises it carried out in Georgia to reflect more what Georgia wanted: the ability to fight Russia. “Recently the exercises are developed to precisely, for example, stop an attack of a tank unit of the likely enemy and to beat back air attacks of its aviation and artillery counterfire,” Aladashvili said.

The prospect of war with Russia, while still remote, has gained urgency this summer following anti-government and anti-Russia protests in Tbilisi that have drawn a harsh reaction from Moscow. Add to that the Kremlin’s dismay at what has happened in next-door Armenia, where the new government is not as enthusiastic about its relationship with Russia as Moscow would like. One prominent commentator even predicted that Russia could invade and occupy some part of Western Georgia to show Armenia a lesson – and that was before this crisis began.

Both Georgian and American officials have shied away from directly connecting these exercises with the current crisis or with Russia at all. When Georgian journalists asked Defense Minister Levan Izoria about the prospect that they might be received poorly in Moscow, Izoria responded only that Georgia would continue to “coolly and rationally” pursue its strategic goals.

Russian officials have been less reticent. The exercises “are intended as a demonstration of force and an attempt to show that NATO remains present at Russia’s western and southern borders. NATO’s desire is to set up bases along the entire border, all the way to the Pacific Ocean,” said Igor Morozov, a member of Russia’s Federation Council, in an interview with state-funded RT.

Other Russian commentators noted with some irony that the official rhetoric around the exercises included claims that they would be aimed at “maintaining [a] stable and secure environment over the Black Sea region.”

“In dangerous circumstances, [exercises with NATO countries in the region] could quickly lead to fighting,” Ruslan Balbek, a member of the Duma representing Crimea, told RT. “All these multinational democratic militaries led by the USA know this as well, and that they are irritating. However, the Americans need only tension. The main thing is that it doesn’t become a military conflict.”

Of all Georgia’s neighbors, the only one participating in Agile Spirit 2019 is Turkey. Armenia and Azerbaijan, which have participated in previous USA-Georgia exercises, are both staying out this time. In Armenia that has caused some consternation among advocates of closer ties with the West and the USA in particular.

“The issue is not the military exercises per se,” said Arman Babajanyan, a member of parliament from the opposition Bright Armenia party, in a Facebook post. “Much more significant is that Russian pressure on Yerevan is growing and seems to have its first manifestations, even though the authorities are trying carefully to conceal this fact. One of the achievements of the Armenian Revolution was the abolition of the Armenia-Russia ‘vassal’ relations, the return of which could cast a shadow over the political significance of these historical events.”

This article was originally published on Eurasianet.


Joshua Kucera is the Turkey/Caucasus editor at Eurasianet, and author of The Bug Pit.


Brexit: Irish Border and Britain’s Fantasy of Taking Back Control

The burden of history is weighing heavily on Britain as it battles with its fantasies of “taking back control.”

[Lyndall Stein| Fair Observer]


The Republic of Ireland has been an enthusiastic member of the European Union since 1973, having both gained and given so much from being part of the EU. In the toxic mayhem of Brexit Britain, one question is perhaps more confounding than most, namely how did the Irish backstop issue emerge as a surprising problem? How could Ireland, with a population of just 4.8 million, have the power to impede the mighty British plan to cut the cord to the EU — a union that the Brexiters have reimagined as a cruel oppressive colonizer?

British rule has cast a long shadow over Ireland. Now 27 EU countries, large and small, are defending the Irish Republic’s right to maintain a frictionless and open border with Northern Ireland, as mandated by the historic Good Friday Agreement. Why did no one seem to see the issue of the Irish border spoiling all the little Englander plans for their new small-island world? How did it come to be a surprise, with 800 years of painful history to muse on?

SEA OF BLOOD

The problem is that in looking back to a supposedly glorious past in “taking back control,” the British are looking back at a legacy that was built on a sea of blood and injustice. It is a history of cruelty, exploitation and neglect. During the 16th and 17th centuries, the wholesale colonization of Ireland accelerated as land was stolen from the Irish people, who were punished for using their own language, forbidden to own land and denied any political rights. Catholics experienced discrimination in every aspect of their lives. A system of vassalage reduced the rural poor to tiny plots of barren land, obliged to pay extortionate rents to local and absentee landlords in England.

To this day, the population of Ireland has not recovered from the human destruction of the great famine of 1845-49 when the potato harvest failed. Potatoes constituted the main diet of the impoverished rural communities, and while butter, cheese and wheat continued to be exported, and a wide range of food was available, the rural poor were left to die in terrible circumstances. The landlords showed no mercy for the starving population, the famine largely ignored by the British ruling class. A million died and a million emigrated, with the population falling by 25% within a decade. The pain and horror of this disaster for the people of Ireland was a powerful driver for their determination to fight for independence and still resonates today.

Over many years after the famine, successive waves of resistance and struggle for independence continued, culminating in the 1916 Easter Rising, during which a republic was proclaimed by the leaders of the rebellion against colonial rule. In the British reprisals that followed, the rebel leaders were court-martialed and executed, and hundreds were killed. The severity of the backlash heightened the Irish people’s determination to free themselves and increased support for the republican Sinn Féin party, which won decisively in the general election of 1918, gaining 73 out of a 105 seats reserved for Ireland in for the House of Commons. Sinn Fein were not prepared to take their seats in Westminster — and refuse to this day — and set up an alternative government in Ireland, the first Dail Eireann.

The British government, however, refused to honor the results of the election, and the unionists in the north of Ireland threatened violence. The War of Independence started in 1919, lasting until 1921, when a truce was called. The result was the partitioning of Ireland and the creation of the Irish Free State, which had control of 26 of the island’s 32 counties. In 1948 it was renamed the Republic of Ireland, though this was contended by those who believed the republic should include the whole of Ireland. The six counties of the north  became Northern Ireland. A border with no historical or geographical relevance was created to maintain a unionist majority in the six counties of the wealthier industrialized north, which then continued to be ruled by Britain as Northern Ireland and as part of the United Kingdom.

The unionists then maintained power through the next eight decades by gerrymandering, discrimination in housing, in the workplace and at the ballot box. The most basic principles of democracy and enfranchisement were absent. This was subsequently challenged by the civil rights protests of the late 1960s. The violent response to these peaceful protests, including the murder of innocent civilians in the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, Northern Ireland, in 1972, escalated into a decades-long armed conflict between the British government and the Irish Republican Army, the IRA. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 with immense effort across the whole of Ireland and the United Kingdom, with international mediation. It is founded on key principles including an open border with the republic — which is now threatened by Brexit.

ARBITRARY BORDERS

The policy of imposing arbitrary borders, created to solve the problems caused by colonial rule, was a model the British followed with disastrous results, leaving a legacy of pain and conflict to this day — in places like India, Pakistan, Palestine and Nigeria. Nearly a quarter of the world was once under the extractive and rapacious rule of the British Empire, at its height before the Second World War. The gentle pink of the maps did not show what was stolen, how many died — how culture, history and heritage were denied.

Ireland’s place in the world, its success as an exporter of its rich culture — music, art, literature, technology and expertise — have all been given the opportunity to flower within the EU’s diverse trading block, built on the free movement of people and goods. Dublin has become an international, vibrant and dynamic city, with a lively and youthful culture that challenges the reactionary forces that have dominated Irish politics for so long. A modern, truly European and sophisticated country has emerged from the crushing impact of its past oppression. It has thrown off the shackles of the Catholic Church in recent years, voting for gay marriage and to end the country’s cruel anti-abortion law — the 8th Amendment that prevented all recourse to safe termination even if the price was the death of the mother.

These issues continue to divide neighboring Northern Ireland, with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which currently gives the Conservative government its parliamentary majority in Westminster, still clinging to fundamentalist attitudes toward women and the LGBTQ community. Northern Ireland voted overwhelmingly to remain in the European Union, but the DUP is committed to leaving the EU and remaining in the bitter past. It has been embroiled in corruption scandals like the “cash for ash” debacle that led to the collapse of the power-sharing agreement in Stormont, leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning government for over two years and counting.

Earlier this month, in the absence of a governing body, MPs in Westminster voted to extend rights to abortion and gay marriage to Northern Ireland.

The billions that were promised by Teresa May’s Conservatives to DUP leader Arlene Foster was a hopeless attempt at vote-buying in order to secure a working majority in the UK Parliament. The DUP’s attachment to its failing powers becomes narrow and blinkered in the context of the electoral successes of Sinn Féin across the whole of Ireland and the increasingly progressive changes that have transformed life in the republic.

TAKING, NOT GIVING

The British have a long history of wanting to continue to take from their erstwhile colonies but not being prepared to give back. They benefited, after the destruction of the Second World War, from the Caribbean immigrants who were encouraged to come here to provide desperately needed skills, only to cruelly reject these children of the Windrush generation who drove our buses, nursed our patients and helped rebuild our country. Despite the scandal, the National Health Service is once again recruiting Jamaican nurses to make for the shortfall in staff following the EU referendum vote.

Yes, curry may be Britain’s most popular national dish, but discrimination and the toxic impact of the UK Home Office’s policies have created a “hostile environment” fostered in the six years of Theresa May as secretary of state have continued under Amber Rudd and now Sajid Javid. We have seen so many cases of injustice and abuse, most recently with the withholding of visas to academics from Africa visiting the UK for vital work on issues such as the Ebola epidemic.

The initial stages of the attempt by the Home Office to manage the question of EU residents’ status post Brexit have been marked by incompetence, confusion and uncertainty, bearing the hallmarks of another episode of discrimination and hostility. The building of new barriers, a cornerstone of Brexit, will impoverish the United Kingdom and sow disunity and disorder, unpicking the fabric of our society built on a free movement for all — both for those who have brought their skills and talents from other countries in Europe and for British citizens who have chosen to retire in sunnier places or work in other countries on the continent.

Those of Irish heritage in the UK have flooded their embassy with requests for an Irish passport, allowing holders to continue to travel and work across Europe as free citizens. The rest of us will be in the slow queue, going backward.

The burden of history is weighing heavily on Britain as it battles with its fantasies of taking back control and the bizarre idea that a trading bloc is actually a cruel colonizing power. So many myths have taken hold, with Brexiters embracing victimhood. The real politics and history of the border between the republic and Northern Ireland, created by the colonial past, have somehow been forgotten along with the fragility of a hard-earned peace.

The idea that an Ireland it once totally controlled and exploited having any power over the mighty British bulldog seems an unreasonable reversal of fortunes, feeding the fantasy that Britain can return to its “glorious past” when it ruled the world, building its wealth and strength on the misery of others in countries both nearby and far away.

This article was originally published on Fair Observer.


Lyndall Stein is a leading authority in campaigning, fundraising and communications. She has the experience of working with Reprieve, New Economics Foundation, Care International UK, Concern Worldwide, BOND, Resource Alliance, ActionAid, Terrence Higgins Trust, African National Congress, Care International, The Big Issue, Practical Action, VSO, African Women’s Development Trust, SOS Children’s Villages, and Institute of Fundraising.


 

Irish Border Backstop until Reaching an Agreement on Alternatives

If the British alternatives to backstop are all that good, why can they not live with the backstop until the alternatives are agreed?

[John Bruton | Oped Column Syndication]


Boris Johnson recently said that there is an “abundance” of technical alternatives to the Irish Backstop. He added that “do or die” he would take the UK out of the EU by 31 October.

He seems to believe that he can, between now and the end of October, persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

First, he has not put forward any detailed alternative to the backstop.

Secondly, there is no way anything meaningful can be negotiated between the time Mr Johnson would become Prime Minister and the end of October. After its experience with the failure of the UK side to ratify proposals it had previously agreed, there is no disposition on the EU side to take things “on trust” from the UK. There is nothing necessarily personal about this. It is just common prudence.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.

If Boris Johnson was as confident, as appears to be that abundant alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/South cooperation based on compatible regulations. The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from health care to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to cooperate on a cross border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.

A 216 page document was published recently by Prosperity UK, setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. They envisage that their proposal would be added as a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. This would require EU consent.

Its authors also admitted that more work was needed on their proposal. It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to leave, come what may, on 31 October means that Prosperity UK’s proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes Prime Minister.

Prosperity UK proposes to have border related controls — not at the border itself, but on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.

The other problem is the extra costs, delays and bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These would actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be even more likely than if the controls were on the border itself. And smuggling can be used to finance subversive activities, as we know.

To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from Northern Ireland, Prosperity UK proposes that, for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead!

This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something Ireland escaped from when it joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.

But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world.

One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/South cooperation, and East/West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen, by a refusal by the Democratic Unionist Party and/or Sinn Fein to work together, is not acceptable.

But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to negotiate such a relationship. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the EU means.

It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.


John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland  (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.