The Good Friday Agreement and Brexit

12th April 2021

Before the Brexit referendum, one British politician made an emphatic statement about the impact of Brexit on the position of Northern Ireland:

‘Relations between London and Dublin are by far the warmest they have ever been since Irish independence, and the people of Northern Ireland are among the beneficiaries of that.

‘For that, the credit goes to a whole succession of British and Irish leaders, and to the tireless diplomacy of the United States. Yet it has also partly been facilitated by both countries being part of a common framework.

‘If the UK were not in the EU, the impact on such close relations, though hard to quantify, would certainly not be positive.

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.

‘Hundreds of millions of euros of European funds are currently diverted into the border region through a special peace programme.

‘Most important of all, the open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic would be called into question.’

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The key sentence of that passage bears repeating:

‘The Good Friday Agreement was based on the assumption that the two countries would be in the EU together, and the various cross-border institutions it established are built on that.’

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Who was this politician?

Was it some starry-eyed Europhile writing in some left-wing magazine?

No, it was former Conservative foreign secretary William Hague writing in the Daily Telegraph on 9th May 2016.

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Hague’s warning was not the only one – and he was also not the only one to make the connection between the European Union and the Good Friday Agreement.

The then Taoiseach Enda Kenny said, just days before the referendum:

‘When the Good Friday agreement was concluded 18 years ago, the detail of the negotiations and the agreement itself were brought about as a result of intensive engagement by the British and Irish governments in conjunction with the Northern Irish political parties.

‘But often underestimated was the international support for the process, not least that of the European Union.’

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And if one looks at the Good Friday Agreement itself, you will see the following recital:

‘The British and Irish governments […]

‘Wishing to develop still further the unique relationship between their peoples and the close co-operation between their countries as friendly neighbours and as partners in the European Union’

The agreement also expressly provided that the north-south ministerial council ‘consider the European Union dimension of relevant matters, including the implementation of EU policies and programmes and proposals under consideration in the EU framework. Arrangements to be made to ensure that the views of the Council are taken into account and represented appropriately at relevant EU meetings’.

Indeed, there are eight mentions of the European Union in the agreement.

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Of course, an agreement made in 1998 did not and could not have anticipated the United Kingdom voting to leave the European Union in 2016 and then leaving in 2020.

But that shared membership of the European Union was a presupposition cannot be sensibly denied.

As Hague also points out about Gibraltar, shared membership of the European Union was a handy and effective solution to tricky cross-border issues.

The European Union was a useful geo-political work-around for many otherwise insoluble problems. 

And so be departing from the European Union, such advantages of membership were removed.

This should not have been a shock.

Hague set this out plainly in the Brexit-supporting Telegraph, and the Taoiseach also put his name to articles explicitly stating this.

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Brexit, of course, is not in and by itself a contradiction of the Good Friday Agreement – in that the Good Friday Agreement still is in force now that the United Kingdom has departed the European Union.

In the first Miller case, the supreme court was asked to rule against the Article 50 notification, and they stated in respect of the legislation implementing that agreement:

‘In our view, this important provision, which arose out of the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement, gave the people of Northern Ireland the right to determine whether to remain part of the United Kingdom or to become part of a united Ireland.

‘It neither regulated any other change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland nor required the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland to the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.’

As such continued shared membership of the European Union may well have been a presupposition of the Good Friday – but it was not (as a lawyer may say) a condition precedent.

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The Good Friday Agreement is, in terms of its practical importance, perhaps the most significant single constitutional instrument in the politics of the United Kingdom.

It is of far more practical importance than, say, Magna Carta.

It shapes what is – and is not – both politically permissible and politically possible.

It largely explains the curiously elaborate – and, for some, counter-intuitive – nature of Brexit in respect of Northern Ireland.

It meant that the clean absolute break with the European Union sought by many Brexit supporters did not happen.

The Irish border was to be kept open.

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But the Good Friday Agreement does not only protect the nationalist community, it also should protect the unionist community.

And the Brexit arrangements – with a trade barrier effectively down the Irish Sea – is seen as much as an affront to the unionists as a visible land border infrastructure would have been an affront to the nationalists.  

There is no easy answer to this problem – perhaps there is no answer, easy or hard.

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It took membership of the European Union to make the Belfast Agreement possible.

Perhaps there is no alternative geo-political workaround to take its place.

Had the United Kingdom stayed within the single market and the customs union, even if as a matter of legal form it would not technically be a member of the European Union, then perhaps this problem could have been averted.

But the fateful decision by then prime minister Theresa May in the months after the Brexit Referendum that Brexit would mean leaving the single market and the customs union meant that problems in respect of the position of Northern Ireland would become stark.

And as nods to the articles by Hague and Kenny show, it cannot be averred that the United Kingdom government was not warned.

***

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‘It was Remainers All Along’ – Brexit and Wandavision

9th April 2021

SPOILERS AHEAD FOR THE TELEVISION SERIES WANDAVISION

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The recent Marvel and Disney-Plus  series Wandavision was a brilliant – almost perfect – piece of television.

In particular it played to the strengths of a story told in periodic instalments, while playing with and exploiting the conventions, techniques and lore of other great television series over seventy years.

But there was part of the story – a misdirection – which makes me think of the current blame games about Brexit.

You may know this misdirection by a merry little song.

That it was ‘Agatha All Along’

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At the point of the series we are introduced to this lovely ditty, there is plausibility to it all being down to the rival witch Agatha.

And indeed: for many her theatrical wink is the compelling tell.

It must have been Agatha all along.

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Except, of course, it was not Agatha all along.

For although Agatha had a certain impact on the plot and the characters, the real causes of the predicament as set out in Wandavision are elsewhere.

The problems instead flow from deeper dislocations, and from distortions of reality, and from the limits of magical thinking.

A false – and ultimately flimsy – world is created, but it is unsustainable and so it comes crashing down.

Happy nostalgic images of the 1950s – and of other decades – are ultimately mere make-believe constructs.

Sound familiar?

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The state of Brexit at the moment is such that it is understandable that those who urged the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union at such speed and with no planning are looking to blame others.

But it is difficult to blame Remainers.

Those blaming Remainers for the shape of Brexit forget that Remainers were not even capable of winning a referendum.

Remainers also had a real opportunity to delay Brexit – or at least have a further referendum – in the the months before the December 2019 general election – and they were not even capable of accomplishing that either.

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At each important point of Brexit – and especially in the crucial few months after the referendum result – the government and its political and media supporters prioritised speed and lack of substance over everything else.

Hardly a thought was employed as to the implications of ‘red lines’.

And once there was an agreement text, the race was on to ‘get Brexit done’ as swiftly as possible, with no proper consideration as to what was being agreed.

As I have averred over at Twitter, the withdrawal agreement and the Northern Irish protocol were the result of five distinct political steps taken by the prime minister Boris Johnson.

 

The shape and manner of Brexit has many causes – but the overriding ones are specific political decisions made by pro-Brexit governments and parliaments when they had majorities in the house of commons – before June 2017 and after December 2019.

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One cannot sensibly hold that Remainers can be held primarily responsible for anything to do with Brexit – other than complacency before the June 2016 referendum and ineptitude before the December 2019 general election.

Of course, there will be Remainer ‘leaders’ – professors and lords and QCs – who like Agatha may tweet theatrical winks to the camera.

And this may in turn provoke Brexit supporters into singing that it was ‘Remainers all along’.

But the tune does not make it true.

It was Brexiters all along.

***

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Four months after the end of the transition arrangements there is still no clear view of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union

4th April 2021

The United Kingdom ceased to be a member of the European Union over fourteen months ago, and the transition arrangements came to an end on 31st December 2020.

Regardless of whether you take the fourteen-month or the four-month period as the true duration so far of Brexit, what is not coming into view is the shape of the future relationship.

My own view – which is pretty much a minority view, as it has been since the dawn of Brexit – is that the United Kingdom and European Union would be best having a close association agreement, where the the legal form would be that the United Kingdom was not a member of the European Union but the substance would be that we would continue to be part of the single market and the customs union.

Issues of representation, consultation and mutual influence would be dealt with by dedicated EU+UK institutions – and such consensual and sustainable institutions would be the answer to the charge that the European Union would be imposing law and policy on an independent United Kingdom.

But this middle way position is still not in sight, and many still see the Brexit debate in the leave/remain binary.

As far as I am aware, no front-rank politician has yet set out a positive vision of the institutional, law and policy framework of the relationship of a post-Brexit United Kingdom and the European Union.

The government is still in its toy-room of gesture politics.

The official opposition is silent.

Those in favour of the United Kingdom becoming a member (again) of the European Union are still – wrongly, in my view, for reasons set out here – emphasising rejoining the European Union, rather than making a positive case from scratch, that is a case without depending on our previous membership.

Those remainers who accept Brexit in principle are saying little about how the United Kingdom should engage

Those in favour of Brexit in principle are still, to use the famous phrase, the dog that caught the car.

There is drift instead of where post-Brexit development of medium- to long-term policy should be.

The removal of Trump from the American presidency and the ongoing pandemic are further disorientating features.

In the absence of constructive policy formulation, we have from ministers shouty confrontation and culture wars instead.

But as was averred on the cover of a Fat Boy Slim album, they are already number one, so why should they try harder?

The politics of Brexit and beyond have still not settled.

Maybe they will not settle for some time.

Maybe, even, we are still in the early years of a Boris Johnson government – or that he will be replaced by someone even less suited to building a constructive relationship with the European Union.

And, to be even-handed, there is little sign in Brussels and other European Union capitals that they too are seeking a new model relationship with the United Kingdom.

If anything, there is a defensive-rearguard urge just to keep the current withdrawal and relationship agreements in place, let alone think about the future.

And the impending Scottish elections and the politics of Ireland and Northern Ireland may even mean there be soon no United Kingdom to have a relationship with the European Union.

All up in the air, still.

So four months on, there is almost no indication of what the long-term post-Brexit relationship will be like.

Volatility may be the new norm.

Brace, brace.

***

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The European Commission launches legal proceedings against the United Kingdom – a guided tour

 16th March 2021

The European Commission announced yesterday that it had ‘launched legal proceedings’ against the United Kingdom.

What has happened is that a formal legal notice has been sent by the European Commission to the United Kingdom.

To say this is ‘launch[ing] legal proceedings’ is a little dramatic: no claim or action has been filed – yet – at any court or tribunal.

But it is a legally significant move,  and it is the first step of processes that, as we will see below, can end up before both a court and a tribunal.

This blogpost sets out the relevant information in the public domain about this legal move – a guided tour of the relevant law and procedure.

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Let us start with the ‘legal letter’ setting out the legal obligations that the European Commission aver the United Kingdom has breached and the particular evidence for those breaches.

This is an ‘infraction’ notice.

As the European Commission is making some very serious allegations – for example, that the United Kingdom is in breach of the Northern Ireland protocol – then it is important to see exactly what these averred breaches are.

This information would be set out precisely in the infraction letter – informing the ministers and officials of the United Kingdom government of the case that they had to meet in their response.

But.

We are not allowed to see this letter.

Even though the European Commission is making serious public allegations about the United Kingdom being in breach of the politically sensitive Northern Ireland Protocol, it will not tell us the particulars of the alleged breaches.

This is because, I am told, the European Commission does not publish such formal infraction notices.

There is, of course, no good reason for this lack of transparency – especially given what is at stake.

The European Commission should not be able to have the ‘cake’ of making serious infraction allegations without the ‘eating it’ of publishing them.

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And so to work out what the alleged breaches are, we have to look at other, less formal (and thereby less exact) sources.

Here the European Commission have published two things.

First, there is this press release.

Second there is this ‘political letter’ – as distinct from the non-disclosed ‘legal letter’.

What now follows in this blogpost is based primarily on a close reading of these two public documents.

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We start with the heady international law of the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties.

Article 26 of the Vienna Convention regards the delightful Latin phrase Pacta sunt servanda.

In other words: if you have signed it, you do it.

Agreements must be kept.

You will also see in Article 26 express mention of ‘good faith’.

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We now go to the withdrawal agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

There at Article 5 you will see that the United Kingdom and the European Union expressly set out their obligation of good faith to each other in respect of this particular agreement:

So whatever ‘good faith’ may or not mean in a given fact situation, there is no doubt that under both Article 26 of the Vienna Convention generally and under Article 5 of the withdrawal agreement in particular that the United Kingdom and the European Union have a duty of good faith to each other in respect of their obligations under the withdrawal agreement.

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The European Commission not only allege that the United Kingdom is in breach of its obligation of good faith but also that the United Kingdom is in breach of specific obligations under the Northern Ireland protocol (which is part of the withdrawal agreement).

The press release says there are ‘breaches of substantive provisions of EU law concerning the movement of goods and pet travel made applicable by virtue of the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland’.

The ‘political letter’ says:

So it would appear that the relevant provisions of the withdrawal agreement are Articles 5(3) and (4) of the Northern Ireland and Annex 2 to that protocol.

Here we go first to Annex 2.

This annex lists many provisions of European Union law that continue to have effect in Northern Ireland notwithstanding the departure of the United Kingdom.

Article 5(4) of the protocol incorporates the annex as follows:

‘The provisions of Union law listed in Annex 2 to this Protocol shall also apply, under the conditions set out in that Annex, to and in the United Kingdom in respect of Northern Ireland.’

As such a breach of Article 5(4) is a breach of the European Union laws set out in that annex.

Article 5(3) of the protocol is a more complicated provision and it is less clear (at least to me) what the European Commission is saying would be the breach:

My best guess is that the European Commission is here averring that the United Kingdom is in breach of the European Union customs code (which is contained in Regulation 952/2013.)

As regards the specific European Union laws set out in Annex 2 that the European Commission also says that the United Kingdom is in breach of, we do not know for certain because of the refusal of the commission to publish the formal infraction notice.

On the basis of information in the press release and the ‘political letter’ it would appear that the problems are set out in these three paragraphs:

Certain keyword searches of Annex 2 indicate which actual laws the European Commission is saying being breached, but in the absence of sight of the formal infraction notice, one could not know for certain.

The reason the detail of what laws are at stake matters is because each instrument of European Union law may have its own provisions in respect of applicability, enforceability and proportionality that could be relevant in the current circumstances.

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So: what next.

Two things – the European Commission is adopting a twin-track, home-and-away approach.

One process will deal with the substantive provisions of European Union law – and the other process will deal with the matter of good faith.

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In respect of the alleged substantive breaches of European Union law, the European Commission has commenced infraction proceedings – as it would do in respect of any member of the European Union.

As the ‘political letter’ pointedly reminds the United Kingdom:

The United Kingdom is still subject to the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union in respect of breaches of European Union law in Northern Ireland.

You thought Brexit meant Brexit?

No: the government of Boris Johnson agreed a withdrawal agreement that kept in place the supervisory and enforcement powers of the European Union – including infraction proceedings of the European Commission and determinations by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

And so in 2021 – five years after the Brexit referendum – the European Commission is launching infraction proceedings against the United Kingdom under Article 258 of the Treaty of Rome:

This means there could well be a hearing before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

One does not know whether this would be more wanted or not wanted by our current hyper-partisan post-Brexit government.

One even half-suspects that they wanted this all along.

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The other track – with the European Commission playing ‘away’ – is in respect of the general ‘good faith’ obligation – as opposed to the substantive European Union law obligations under Annex 2.

Here we are at an early stage.

In particular, we are are at the fluffy ‘cooperation’ stage of Article 167:

If this fails, then the next stage would be a notice under Article 169(1):

Article 169(1) provides that such a formal notice shall ‘commence consultations’.

And if these Article 169 consultations do not succeed, then we go to Article 170:

The arbitration panel – and not the European Commission nor the European Court of Justice – would then determine whether the United Kingdom is in breach of its general obligation of good faith.

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We could therefore end up with two sets of highly controversial proceedings.

The European Commission has intimated the processes for both to take place in due course.

From a legalistic perspective, the European Commission may have a point – depending on what the alleged breaches actually are.

A legal process is there for dealing with legal breaches – that is what a legal process is for.

But.

When something is legally possible, it does not also make it politically sensible.

A wise person chooses their battles.

And if the European Commission presses their cases clumsily, then the legitimacy and durability of the withdrawal framework may be put at risk.

Brace, brace.

***

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Post-Brexit policy does not need to be like this – no, it really does not – but there are no other post-Brexit policies in town

13th March 2021

The best blogger about Brexit is Chris Grey and his weekly blog is a valuable resource in understanding Brexit as it has gone along.

In particular, the blog correctly emphasises that at each step there were choices made and not made – that things could have gone differently – and how (usually) the bad decisions ended up being made.

As the tricks of mind of hindsight and evasion begin to have their effects on the collective memory, Grey’s blog will be a crucial reminder of how things were at the time.

His post this week, however, is a detailed – and brutal and delightful – critique of a recent column by the new Brexit cabinet minister David Frost – and it is not only a critique but also a warning.

The warning is that the current government is – out of the various options available – choosing one which is especially damaging for the United Kingdom.

But the option being chosen is – in the minds of the Brexiter ministers – validated by the experience (so far) of ‘getting Brexit done’.

Of course, for the reasons that Grey sets out, the Brexiter ministers have drawn the wrong lessons from this formative experience.

Part of this is down to personalities – in particular the personalities of Frost and prime minister Boris Johnson.

And politics often does come down just to personalities. 

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But.

There is a risk that a preoccupation on personalities means that the lack of alternative policies being promoted is overlooked.

For although the Frost-Johnson approach is, as Grey avers, ‘a sorry mixture of blather, nonsense, disingenuity and dishonesty’ – it also has another quality.

It is the only post-Brexit policy in town.

The Labour opposition has no post-Brexit policy – and is (no doubt for strategic and tactical reasons) opting not to put forward an alternative policy.

Those who are former remainers and are seeking the United Kingdom to (re)join the European Union do not have a post-Brexit policy as such – unless simply not wanting to be outside the European Union can be a policy.

And the moderate and practical Conservatives who might have advocated a more constructive post-Brexit policy were largely purged from the house of commons at the last general election.

So there is a vacuum where an alternative, constructive post-Brexit policy should be.

In contrast to this void, Frost-Johnson not only have a policy but also maintain that the policy is validated by the experience so far of Brexit – and so it has a certain superficial plausibility.

And until and unless there is another post-Brexit policy in town – which accepts the brute political fact of Brexit but seeks to go in another direction – then the Frost-Johnson approach will face no challenge other than from reality.

Such an alternative, constructive policy is perfectly possible – as Grey’s blog and other commentary shows, there are choices available.

But unless the politics of this post-Brexit period change radically, the Frost-Johnson approach has the political town to itself – and it is very good at misdirection and evasion when things go wrong.

Although commentators can point this out in real-time that will make no difference unless opposition politicians also act in real-time to put forward other post-Brexit policies.

And – yes, the Frost-Johnson post-Brexit approach can and should be blamed for many things, but it cannot be blamed for a lack of policy and political alternatives.

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The United Kingdom government says yet again it will break international law – and why this is daft, dangerous, and dishonest

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.

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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.

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As the historian Robert Saunders avers, the ultimate problem here is honesty – with itself and its supporters, as well as others:

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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Brexit is already structured as a negotiation without end – but what happens if Brexit continues to be a political row without end?

24th February 2021

One of the wisest and most perceptive of political commentators is Rafael Behr – and at the end of a recent wise and perceptive column is this wise and perceptive observation:

‘For the true believers, a good Brexit is one that keeps the grievance alive; that makes foreigners the scapegoat for bad government; that continues to indulge the twin national myths of victimhood and heroic defiance. Measured for that purpose, Johnson’s pointless Brexit is perfect.’

Another commentator Mujtaba Rahman makes similar points in this depressingly plausible thread:

Is there anything in these pessimistic takes?

Are things likely to now get worse – or at least not get any better?

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As I set out in this Financial Times video, the trade and cooperation agreement is structured deliberately as framework for ongoing negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom:

This requirement for ongoing engagement is a feature – and not a bug – of the departure arrangements.

There are institutions and processes in place for constant dialogue – and five-yearly cycles are expressly envisaged for more fundamental shifts in the relationship.

The formal relationship will be, and is intended to be dynamic, not static.

This was, of course, always likely to be the case with a Brexit which has been conducted at speed and with little or no planning or indeed thought.

Many things were left undone with the intention of dealing with them later.

But whatever the explanation, one thing that can be said with certainty is that the Brexit we have had is not a ‘once-and-for-all’ event where ‘with-one-bound-we-were-free’.

So regardless of the mood of politicians the law and policy process of Brexit has not gone away – and may well never do so, at least for a political generation or two (or three).

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Law and policy is one thing – and politics is another.

One can perhaps envisage a future – even under the current arrangements – where the Brexit issue is de-intensified, and where everyone gets on in a post-Brexit context.

But.

If the observations of Behr and others are correct such an outlook is unduly optimistic.

Many Brexit arguments are instead now beginning – and will become all the more intense because now they have supposed facts of ‘EU v UK’ to feed off, as opposed to the definite fictions.

If this is the case, then there will be implications for the framework provided by the trade and cooperation agreement.

For that framework is intended implicitly as almost a technocratic device – a means by which two friendly entities merely and boringly manage a relationship, making adjustments as they go along.

Talking shops, not boxing rings.

Less clear is how the trade and cooperation agreement – and also the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol of the prior withdrawal agreement – will take a never-ending storm of partisanship and hostility.

That is not what these agreements were designed for.

The clue is in the ‘cooperation’ part of the very name ‘trade and cooperation agreement’.

Cooperation it says, and not confrontation.

It is not a trade and confrontation agreement.

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Yet.

Few things are inevitable in human affairs.

It is still only February – the month after the Brexit transition arrangements came to an end.

Nothing that has so far happened can demonstrate with certainty what the first few years of Brexit will be like.

Things may calm down, or things may get far worse, or something new may come along which changes everything.

All that said, however, this early volatility indicates that any easy and quick passage of the United Kingdom to full participation in the European Union single market and customs union is unlikely – and still less the prospect of rejoining.

Even if things do calm down, they are now unlikely to go back to how they were.

*

The key political question now is whether the government and its political and media supporters can themselves ‘move on’ from Brexit.

For if they cannot politically ‘move on’ then the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements (which this government itself negotiated, signed, won an electoral mandate for, and implemented into law) will be politicised and contested in the same way membership of the European Union was politicised and contested.

And it is not inevitable that the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements will be able to withstand such sustained political assaults.

The Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements may have replaced full membership of the European Union, but that does not mean there is in turn an even-smaller Russian doll of a formal relationship available if those arrangements fail.

If the Brexit withdrawal and cooperation arrangements crash, there may be nothing to replace them.

Brace, brace.

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The significance of the appointment of Lord Frost as a cabinet minister for Brexit

18th February 2021

Compare and contrast two government statements.

The first – which was released to the media though not (it seems) published on the government website – is from just before Christmas 2019.

The statement read:

“The Department for Exiting the European Union will be wound up once the UK leaves the EU on the 31 January.

“DExEU staff have been spoken to today. We are very grateful for all their work and we will help everyone to find new roles.”

The notion was that, now Brexit had been ‘delivered’ there was no need for a cabinet-level minister to be dedicated to Brexit.

But Brexit had not been delivered.

Brexit had hardly begun.

For as this blog as previously averred – and as I set out in this Financial Times video – Brexit will be a negotiation without end. 

This is because in part of the enormity of the issues that still need to be settled – but it also because of the deliberate structure of the withdrawal agreement and the trade and cooperation agreement.

Both of the Brexit agreements create institutions and frameworks for ongoing negotiations, and negotiations, and negotiations.

That the ‘delivery’ of Brexit will be an ongoing matter for substantial and intense engagement with the European Union is a feature of the withdrawal arrangements, not a bug.

The content and form of the exit agreements are not about once-and-for-all and one-bound-and-we-are-free.

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And so we come to the second government announcement, from yesterday.

Regardless of the personalities involved – Frost is, in effect, taking over from Michael Gove as the cabinet minister responsible for Brexit, and Gove is a politician many have very strong opinions about – this is a sensible and welcome appointment for four reasons.

First, it shows the government has realised that the task and tasks ahead for Brexit are such that it needs a dedicated minister at cabinet level (even if not, strictly speaking, a secretary of state).

Indeed, the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union is likely to be a far more visible and prominent feature of public policy after Brexit than before.

And the cabinet office – and thereby Gove – has many other responsibilities. 

Second, it indicates that the government has realised the folly of creating a special pop-up department for the purpose of dealing with Brexit and is instead working with the grain of the planks of Whitehall than against them.

The cabinet office has many faults, but it at least has the departmental weight, and the expertise and (now) institutional memory on Brexit, that an entirely new department would lack.

Third, as Frost was the United Kingdom’s negotiator of the trade and cooperation agreement, there is a benefit for him also being in place for the negotiations that are to take place within the framework of the agreement.

The many delicate compromises of the agreement, and the agreed processes established to address hundreds (if not thousands) of technical issues (as well as various big ones) will not be – or should not be – news to him.

And fourth, the appointment regularises the position of Frost in the government – making him a formal minister so as to end his limbo state as a politicised adviser and ‘sherpa’.

As such he will be responsible to parliament directly.

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Not all government decisions – even with Brexit – are calamitous.

Sometimes the government of the United Kingdom can surprise you and do something (eventually) that makes sense.

Of course: there should have been in place a dedicated cabinet minister for Brexit all along – and, if so, various problems over the last year may not have the effects that they did.

But the primary significance of the appointment is that it implies an official acknowledgement that the real work of Brexit is still to come.

If so, perhaps Brexit reality is finally seeping in.

*****

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An introduction to Article 16 of the Northern Irish Protocol

16th February 2021

Article 16 of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland seems to be fated to become one of those legal provisions known by their number alone, like Article 50 or Section 28.

The provision has already been the feature of a political controversy, when the European Commission made the horrible mistake of invoking Article 16 in respect of proposed regulations about the coronavirus regulations – a proposal that was promptly, and correctly, withdrawn.

The prime minister of the United Kingdom Boris Johnson has also been reported as saying that he would be minded to trigger Article 16 in certain circumstances.

In these circumstances, a working knowledge of what Article 16 says, and does not say, may be useful for those who follow public affairs.

This post provides a basic introduction to the provision, and it complements a video that I recently narrated for the Financial Times.

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As a preliminary point, just as one does not simply walk into Mordor, one should never go straight to a clause or other provision within a wider legal instrument without an understanding of the purpose of that wider legal instrument.

By analogy: one can perhaps make sense of a line of computer code, but one also needs to understand how that line of code fits in the wider program to elicit its full meaning.

Similarly, an undue focus on the wording and contents of a single provision in any legal instrument can be misleading.

Every article, clause, section – or whatever word used for a discrete portion of legal text – has a context.

And so with Article 16 we have to understand something about the purpose of the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

*

The protocol, in turn, does not exist in isolation.

The protocol is attached to the Brexit withdrawal agreement – one of the two vast and complex international agreements between the European Union and the United Kingdom that provide the legal framework for Brexit.

The recitals to the withdrawal agreement – which (literally) recite the background and shared understandings of the parties to that agreement – describe the purpose of the the protocol:

Not just specific, but ‘very specific’.

You will also note the word ‘durable’ – and this indicates that it was the shared understanding of the European Union and the United Kingdom that the protocol would not be a temporary arrangements.

Article 125 of the withdrawal agreement then provides for how and when the protocol takes effect:

You will see Article 16 is not included in the provisions that had immediate effect on the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union – and so Article 16 has only had legal force since 1 January 2021.

The other main mention of the protocol in the main withdrawal agreement is that there shall be a specialised committee dealing with the protocol as part of the ‘Joint Committee’ that oversees the agreement:

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Now we can turn to the protocol itself.

Confusingly – and welcome to European Union legal instruments! – the protocol itself has its own recitals and articles.

And the protocol has a lot of recitals – twenty-three recitals (as opposed to nineteen operative articles).

Each one of these recitals sets out expressly a shared understanding of the European Union and the United Kingdom.

In particular, the government of the United Kingdom has put its name to each one of the recitals as a statement of its own understanding.

The recitals are not agreements in themselves, and they are not legally enforceable by themselves, but they do set out the common understandings of the European Union and the United Kingdom that are relevant to the articles that follow.

And these recitals, in particular, are significant:

And:

Note the word ‘guarantee’.

And:

And:

A common response from those unhappy with the protocol is to insist something about what the Good Friday Agreement does and does not provide in respect of a ‘hard’ border.

These recitals, however, do explicitly set in firm and emphatic language the shared understandings of the European Union (including Ireland) and the United Kingdom in respect of there not being a hard border.

And this is in the very ‘oven-ready’ withdrawal agreement for which Johnson and the Conservative Party won a mandate at the December 2019 general election and that was then endorsed by the Westminster parliament.

*

Now the articles – the substantive operative provisions that are entitled to have legal effect as between the parties.

You will see that the articles provide for substantive obligations in respect of the free movement of persons and goods (and Article 5 in turn incorporates an annex listing hundreds of European Union regulations and directives).

There are also provisions for State aid and VAT.

The protocol is, in effect, the legal mechanics for Northern Ireland remaining, in effect, part of the European Union single market and customs arrangements whilst still being part of the United Kingdom single market.

It is a complex and – regardless of one’s political views – remarkable piece of legal drafting, especially given the rush of the exit negotiations.

But as with any legal instrument – especially ones devised at speed and in respect of sensitive issues – there will be problems and disputes and unintended effects.

And this brings us to Article 16.

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Article 16 comprises just three paragraphs:

The article is entitled ‘Safeguards’ – and not, for example, ‘Sanctions’ or ‘Retaliatory measures’.

The first paragraph then provides the triggers for the safeguards.

There are two triggers.

First: ‘if the application of this Protocol leads to serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties that are liable to persist’.

Here note the requirements that the difficulties need to be ‘serious’ and ‘liable to persist’ – that it, not trivial or temporary.

Second: ‘if the application of this Protocol leads to…diversion of trade’.

Again, ‘diversion’ indicates something significant and lasting.

*

If either of these triggers are met then either the European Union or the United Kingdom ‘may unilaterally take appropriate safeguard measures’.

Note the requirement that the measures be ‘appropriate’ – and also (deftly) the measures have to be ‘safeguard’ measures, and not any old measures.

Paragraph 1 of the article then also adds further requirements in respect of the scope and duration of the safeguard measures, and subjects the measures to a test of strict necessity.

And – and! – priority should be given to ‘such measures as will least disturb the functioning’ of the protocol.

Paragraph 2 of the article then provides for similar tests for any ‘balancing’ measures of the other party.

These are all onerous substantive tests – and each one must be met for a safeguard measure to be adopted.

And these are just the substantive tests – for Annex 7 to the protocol also provides for the procedure that also has to be followed.

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Annex 7 contains six ‘points’:

You will see point 1 provides a duty of notification at the stage the safeguard measure is being considered.

Point 2 then provides that the next stage is consultations.

Point 3 then imposes a general one month delay, unless the consultations have ended quickly or there are ‘exceptional circumstances’ and the measures are ‘strictly necessary’.

Point 5 then provides that, in addition to the requirement that the safeguard measures not endure longer than necessary, there is a three month review period.

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All of these substantive and procedural provisions are consistent with the measures being of the nature as described on the tin: ‘safeguard measures’.

The measures are to be protective – and what is to be protected is the operation of the protocol and the shared understandings on which the protocol rests.

This means any attempt to use the safeguard measures to, say, alter the operation of the protocol, or to disturb the shared understandings on which the protocol rests, is outside the purpose of the safeguard measures.

In simple terms: that is not what the safeguard measures are safeguarding.

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Of course, politicians being politicians, there will be a temptation to use the Article 16 safeguard measures for other purposes – as leverage in trade discussions, or as retaliatory weapons, or as an attempt to re-write or even discard the protocol.

But even if the intention is to misuse the safeguard measures, the measures are – at least in theory – subject always to the substantive requirements of Article 16 and the procedural requirements of Annex 7.

Of course: all legal instruments are only ever as powerful as the human will to enforce their terms.

For Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?the eternal question of who watches the watchmen – applies here, as elsewhere.

What – or who – shall safeguard the safeguards?

*****

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Why Vernon Bogdanor’s Telegraph piece needed a response – and why the constitution of the United Kingdom does not care about your nostalgia

11th February 2021

Over at Prospect magazine yesterday I set out a brief response to a piece by Vernon Bogdanor on Brexit and the constitution.

The first version of my Prospect post was a sentence-by-sentence ‘fisking’ of the Telegraph article – until I realised that such an approach gave equal space and prominence to each error and unsubstantiated assertion.

Such an approach would be a problem in this instance because there was one flaw so fundamental that it warranted addressing in and by itself.

The fundamental mistake was a refusal to accept that the Good Friday Agreement transformed the constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom.

Indeed, as I set out in that piece and have said before: in practical terms, the Good Friday Agreement is now the most important single document in the constitution of the United Kingdom.

It is certainly far more significant than the old constitutional fogey favourites such as Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights.

Even before Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement’s express requirement that the European Convention on Human Rights must be capable of being directly enforceable in the courts of Northern Ireland severely limited the attempts of Tory politicians to repeal the Human Rights Act 1998.

And with Brexit, the Good Friday Agreement limited what forms of Brexit were available to the United Kingdom and the European Union.

Other than a ‘hard border’ requiring impediments on trade and commerce between the north and the south on the island of Ireland, there were only two possibilities.

One was that the whole of the United Kingdom remained (excuse the pun) within the European Union single market and customs union to the extent it affected any Northern Irish matter – and this was the approach favoured by former prime minister Theresa May.

Or the alignment was only between the north and south parts of the island of Ireland, thereby meaning the friction of customs and regulatory checks was between the island of Great Britain and Northern Ireland – and this was the approach favoured by prime minster Boris Johnson and for which he won a general election mandate.

There was no other way the problem could have been addressed.

*

But stepping back from this problem and its practical solution, it is difficult to think of any other single legal instrument that has shaped public policy in such an emphatic way.

And this is rare in the politics of the United Kingdom.

This is because the doctrine of parliamentary supremacy means that usually a government in Westminster with an overall majority will get its way.

The notion is odd that anyone can point to a legal document and say ‘no, Westminster government, you cannot just do as you wish because of this legal instrument’.

But this is what has happened.

Faced with this unusual constitutional phenomenon, there are two approaches.

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The first approach, adopted by Bogdanor in the Telegraph article is to try to force the constitution into the box it was in before the Good Friday Agreement.

That is to take the pre-1999 constitutional arrangements of the United Kingdom as the standard from which things have since deviated, and to cure such deviations by reasserting a classic model.

Here the very final sentence of the Telegraph piece is the tell: “Today’s argument is about the cohesion of the kingdom”.

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The second approach is to try to see how the constitution has changed without prioritising one moment of the constitution’s development over the other.

The Good Friday Agreement is not about ‘the cohesion of the kingdom’.

The Good Friday Agreement is the recognition that in respect of Northern Ireland there is a contested polity.

The agreement then regulates that contested polity by positing the absolute standard of consent.

The United Kingdom, to invoke a phrase, has no selfish or strategic interest in Northern Ireland remaining part of the union, ‘cohesively’ or otherwise.

The agreement provides that any political question in respect of the position of Northern Ireland has to be approached not only from the perspective of the United Kingdom but also of Ireland.

The agreement also provides for an all-island and cross-border approach where possible, the granting of citizenship rights, and for the removal of visible infrastructure on the border.

To demand that the United Kingdom to again be ‘cohesive’ is to miss the point of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Good Friday Agreement is the (realistic and mature) recognition that in respect of Northern Ireland the ‘kingdom’ is no longer ‘cohesive’ but is contested.

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The twin perils of constitutionalism are fogeyism and utopianism.

Fogeyism is the view that previous constitutional arrangements (either real or imagined) are inherently meritorious and are prescriptive and binding – and that any departure from these previous arrangements is unsound and should be resisted.

Utopianism is the view that the only constitutional reforms worth contemplating are to achieve certain ideals: A written constitution! Abolition of the monarchy! Abolition of the House of Lords!

(I have written on this later approach here.)

Perhaps it is because we do not have a codified constitution that constitutional discourse in the United Kingdom – or in England, to be more exact – is so impoverished.

Both the fogeys and the utopians prioritise a normative approach to constitutionalism – preoccupied with what they aver the constitution should be, rather than what it actually is.

What both miss is a positive approach – for, in descriptive terms, all a constitution is is the answer to the question: how is this polity constituted?

And the descriptive answer to that question will change from time to time, sometimes in accordance with your values and sometimes in breach of them.

The constitution of the United Kingdom – that is, the descriptive answer to the question of how the United Kingdom is currently constituted –  is just there, and it will always be there is some form as long as the United Kingdom exists.

And the constitution does not care for your nostalgia – or your utopianism.

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POSTSCRIPT – 4pm same day

Bogdanor has now responded to my response here – nothing in each changes anything, and I stand by my position that his Telegraph article fundamentally misuunderstands the constitutional significance of the Good Friiday Agreement.

*****

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