7th March 2021
Another month, another move by the government by the United Kingdom that will break international law.
This time it is the announcement of a unilateral move in respect of a grace period for for temporary agrifood movements to Northern Ireland.
This, of course, from a United Kingdom government that repeatedly boasted of its readiness for a swift withdrawal from the European Union without any agreements in place.
Now the government of the United Kingdom wants grace periods – the latest in a succession of extensions and ‘implementation’ and ‘transition’ arrangements, all with the effect of the government of the United Kingdom pretending to itself and others that there has not been any actual departure from the European Union.
And this is not in respect of any old international obligation imposed by some outside body – but in respect of obligations that this United Kingdom recently negotiated, signed, obtained a mandate for at a general election, and rushed through parliament without scrutiny.
It is all rather daft.
One of the wonders of the age is that so many political and media supporters of the government still clap and cheer at these self-inflicted pratfalls.
In turn, the European Union is unequivocal:
‘Following the UK government’s statement today, Vice-President Šefčovič has expressed the EU’s strong concerns over the UK’s unilateral action, as this amounts to a violation of the relevant substantive provisions of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and the good faith obligation under the Withdrawal Agreement.
‘This is the second time that the UK government is set to breach international law.’
This response from the European Union indicates not only why the threatened unilateral breach is daft – but also why it is also dangerous.
The post-Brexit future of the United Kingdom now depends on being able to be taken seriously as an independent international trade partner.
But each signal that the government of the United Kingdom will casually breach obligations into which itself negotiated and entered is a signal that the United Kingdom is not to be trusted.
This bad faith will have two effects.
First, doors will silently close on the United Kingdom – as why would any trading nation strike a substantial deal with the United Kingdom when the United Kingdom shows itself willing to break such an agreement within weeks?
And second, those agreements that do go ahead will have built into them protections and allocations of risk to address the United Kingdom’s untrustworthiness.
No sensible country watching any of this will assume there will be good faith from the United Kingdom in any international agreement.
The trade negotiators of the United Kingdom may as well all turn up to any negotiation sessions wearing sandwich boards saying ‘kick us’.
This is the moral hazard that the United Kingdom has created for itself.
And it is the very last thing a country in the position of the United Kingdom should be doing, as it moves into its post-Brexit future.
Indeed, the government should be doing the opposite: making sure that every move and statement is geared towards building up international credibility.
As the historian Robert Saunders avers, the ultimate problem here is honesty – with itself and its supporters, as well as others:
So many of our Brexit problems have a common source: the govt's refusal to be honest about the deal it negotiated. It persistently represents its own choices as hostile incursions, to be repelled by a sovereign state. It's a case-study in how dishonesty drives bad policy. THREAD https://t.co/kaWsU2UOGg— Robert Saunders (@redhistorian) March 5, 2021
That this observation is, well, so obvious would make one think there could perhaps be a quick moment of realisation – that the government and its supporters will realise the folly of their bad faith.
But there is a real risk that the government of the United Kingdom will keep on with this daft, disastrous and dishonest approach – as the marginal political gains seem preferable to facing up to the structural and strategic damage.
The adverse consequences will just be factored into elsewhere in the international arrangements (and lack of arrangements ) of the United Kingdom.
There is no such thing as a free lunge to lawlessness and bad faith.
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