I have been struggling a bit with the latest Brexiteer shenanigans – surely they cannot honestly believe that the EU will let them get away with breaking the Withdrawal Agreement, especially the bits protecting the Good Friday Agreement.
Some people have been suggesting it’s just a way to get the EU to be more flexible in the trade agreement negotiations, but it doesn’t really ring true – it’s too risky and tone-deaf.
The best answer so far was provided by Garvan Walshe in an excellent article in Foreign Policy:
Yet this is more than just the chronic unreliability of a man who won’t even disclose the number of children he has. It’s a much deeper problem, rooted in the British understanding of sovereignty. Britain likes to think its Parliament is all-powerful and sovereign: That is indeed why it had such trouble with EU law, and its enforcement by European courts. Unlike smaller countries, Britain’s memory of its pre-EU existence is as a great power — in a time when there were few constraints on its international action.
As one acquaintance said to me on Twitter: “The UK is a sovereign nation and can do what it wants, there may be prices to pay,” which would be “deemed acceptable costs.”
This is a transactional view of international relations, where there are no unbreakable rules, and unreliability is merely a cost of doing business that needs to be balanced against the benefits it brings. It suited the British Empire, which was powerful enough to absorb that cost, and this was generally how all European powers thought until 1939. Treaties were for the little guys; the big boys relied on the balance of power.
The concept of a treaty directly contradicts the Brexiteers’ understanding of sovereignty. If a treaty is designed to control the behavior of its signatories, it cannot be unilaterally overturned by any one of them. Like any contract, it needs to be amended by mutual agreement. What’s the point, after all, of signing a deal with a country that feels itself free to renege on it?
Brexit is ostensibly a mission to free Britain of all international restraints, of which the EU is only the most obvious. The most clear-eyed Brexiteers, like my Twitter interlocutor, accept the high transaction costs that come with this freedom. Johnson dismisses them, preferring to “have his cake and eat it,” so entered into the agreement with what Jesuit theologians call a “mental reservation” — a necessary lie.
So basically they’re taking a boarding-school approach to international politics, where the bigger kids bully the smaller ones. I therefore agree with New German Jon Worth who argues that the “breakdown in trust is so bad that the EU itself looks ridiculous by continuing to even seriously talk to such a bunch of gangsters. So the EU should walk away. Now. Until the UK can categorically prove it will respect commitments previously entered into in the Brexit process there should be no more negotiations.”
So although the language is staggeringly direct in the following quote from the EU Commission’s statement (you’d normally expect something rather more diplomatic), I’m not sure it’s enough:
Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič called on the UK government to withdraw these measures from the draft Bill in the shortest time possible and in any case by the end of the month. He stated that by putting forward this Bill, the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust. He reminded the UK government that the Withdrawal Agreement contains a number of mechanisms and legal remedies to address violations of the legal obligations contained in the text – which the European Union will not be shy in using.
It’s a good start, however, and it doesn’t preclude the EU from escalating matters later.
I have a feeling we’ll soon start talking about Perfidious Albion again, described by Wikipedia like this:
a pejorative phrase used within the context of international relations diplomacy to refer to alleged acts of diplomatic sleights, duplicity, treachery and hence infidelity (with respect to perceived promises made to or alliances formed with other nation states) by monarchs or governments of the UK (or England prior to 1707) in their pursuit of self-interest.
Finally, we have to address the obvious question (given the nature of this blog): If the Tories are hell-bent on turning the UK into an international playground bully (like Putin’s Russia), ignoring any treaty that doesn’t suit them, where does that leave Scottish independence?
Surely this shows that even if Nicola Sturgeon manages to convince them to grant a Section 30 order, they won’t respect it afterwards if the result doesn’t suit them. If treaties are for the little guys, that must be doubly true for deals with a devolved administration that they don’t respect any more than a local council.
So what do we do? Do we hang on in the hope that Labour will gain power in 2024 or 2029, restoring sanity to the UK? There’s no guarantee they’ll grant a Section 30 order either, of course, but surely they’d respect it if they did. It does mean suffering the full consequences of the Tories’ No-Deal Brexit Britain dystopia (including their hollowing out of devolution) in the meantime, of course, but it’s perhaps the sensible thing to do for the feart kid in the playground.
Or do we accept that the Tories won’t agree to a Section 30 order, but trust that the international community surely by now will have realised what Scotland is up against and will look favourably on a less legal and less consensual path to independence? It takes more courage, though. Is Scotland ready for this?