9th March 2021
Those who follow Brexit are likely to have strong opinions on the merits of Brexit, and those strong opinions will in turn to influence how each development is approached.
Supporters of Brexit will clap and cheer at certain things, and opponents of Brexit (or of this government’s approach to Brexit) will rage and jeer.
One side will tend to see the government as doing nothing wrong, and the other side will see the government as doing everything wrong.
And such partisanship means any problem is seen either as not existing or as entirely the fault of the government of the United Kingdom.
But not everything is the fault of a bunch of politicians in one place and at one time.
In a recent post at the London School of Economics blog, Professor Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast has done a short explainer on the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol – and it is perhaps one of the best short explainers on Brexit generally.
But the one phrase in that post which stood out for me was this:
‘It is true that – with the best will in the world (which is evident among most businesses in NI) – the new border regime is still far from ready for full implementation.’
So used are many of us at seeing as every failing of Brexit as being directly attributable to the expedient follies of the United Kingdom government that it can sometimes be forgotten that even if we were suddenly to have a sensible and practical government many Brexit problems would still be there.
For this is the very nature of fundamental problems: mere superficialities cannot and do not make any difference.
That is why the problems are, well, fundamental.
Hayward’s post reminds us of how the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol is exceptional: it affects an internal boundary of one of the parties; it applies different rules to goods moving in one direction than the other; the applicable rules in one direction are that of the European Union and not the United Kingdom; and that in respect of those applicable rules, it will be the United Kingdom that will be applying them, not the European Union.
As Hayward wisely observes: ‘This entails a great deal of trust on the EU side and a great deal of responsibility on the UK side.’
And these are just the structural problems.
There are then many practical problems, as with any trade agreement – which were, of course, exacerbated by the reckless, last-minute approach to the negotiation and implementation of the protocol.
And to demonstrate the adage that there is nothing in political affairs that the current government of the United Kingdom cannot make worse, there are the clumsy and confrontational antics of the relevant minister David Frost.
In the words of Hayward:
‘The EU is frustrated at the lack of readiness, compliance and, now, the trustworthiness of the UK.’
But the value of Hayward’s post is not just in that pay-off line, but in it showing us that even if Frost was not playing to the gallery, the structural and practical problems would still be there – and just as pressing and urgent.
This means that the European Union – and the rest of us – should not get preoccupied with the current political problems – as distinct from the structural and practical problems.
Just as the claps and cheers of the political and media supporters of the government are not enough to get Brexit ‘done’ – a similar but opposite superficial response to such political idiocy is not sufficient as a remedy to the current problems.
Put bluntly: if prime minister Boris Johnson and various of his ministers all resigned this evening, the structural and practical problems identified by Hayward would still be there in the morning.
And so Hayward is right to aver that the European Union should seek to avoid getting too caught-up in our current government’s short-term silliness – the ‘moral hazard’ of which I set out in a recent post.
The problems addressed by – and caused by – the Ireland/Northern Ireland Protocol will be there as long as the United Kingdom is out of the European Union and Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom.
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