Brexit, Johnson, Merkel, Macron – and 30 days in the wilderness

“We were also over-reliant on Angela Merkel, even after she showed us that she wasn’t as dependable a supporter as we might have wished,” wrote Daniel Korski, in his account of how David Cameron lost the EU referendum.  “She certainly seemed to take much more of a back seat during the final, crucial weeks of negotiations, giving advice, offering support and laying out red lines, but not getting too involved.”

An entire library could be assembled of stories claiming that Merkel would, at one time or another, come to the aid of a British Government during its to-and-fros with the European Union.  The claim is that Germany – as another pro-free trade, pro-American, pro-market economy country – is a natural UK ally.  But when push comes to shove, Merkel has stuck with France and the EU Commission.

Korski reminds his readers that she deserted Cameron over the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncker as the Commission’s President, to which she was originally opposed.   As with Cameron, so with Theresa May: as recently as February, the German Chancellor called for “creative” thinking on…yes, the Northern Ireland backstop.  “We can still use the time to perhaps reach an agreement if everyone shows good will,” she said.

And as with May so, now, with Boris Johnson.  Once again, Merkel has said that there is time to agree a deal – 30 days, to be precise.  “The backstop has always been a fall-back option until this issue is solved,” she said on Wednesday, during a join press conference with the Prime Minister.  “It was said we will probably find a solution in two years. But we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?”

Some have put that remark alongside Emmanuel Macron’s declaration that “the framework that has been negotiated by Michel Barnier that can be adapted,” and concluded that the EU is preparing to blink at the last moment, climb down on the backstop, and present Johnson with an amended Withdrawal Agreement – which will then at last pass through Parliament, thus bringing this chapter of the Brexit story to a close.

According to one version of events, the Prime Minister himself believes that such an outcome is still possible, while others in his top team don’t.  If so, the balance of the argument strongly suggests that they are right, for four main reasons.  First, the EU collectively takes its ideology seriously, and this demands sticking with the Withdrawal Agreement, or an agreement so like it as to make no difference.

Second, it must show Donald Trump, and the rest of the world, that if it takes a position on a major strategic issue, such as Brexit, it will hold to it.  Third, Germany and France must ultimately be sensitive to the concerns of smaller EU countries, of which one is in the Brexit front line: Ireland.  Fourth, they have reason to wait, along with the rest of the EU, to see if the Commons, when it returns in September, blocks Brexit yet again.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Merkel’s position is not as dominant as it was during the Cameron years; and even then, to quote Korski once again, she was prone to “not getting too involved”.  Seen in this light, Merkel and Macron’s words – which in any event must be considered in the context of everything else they said – look more like more gambits in a blame game than a genuine change of heart.

Johnson wants to signal that he’s up for a deal: that was the point of his visits before this weekend’s G7 summit in Biarritz.  Macron and Merkel do, too: hence their hints of flexibility.  But the sum of the evidence is that “nothing has changed”.  In any event, it is far from certain that even a revised Withdrawal Agreement would get through Parliament.  That would require a Bill, which would of course be amendable, and time is very short.

If the EU had prized mutual gain over protecting its project, it wouldn’t have insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement precede trade talks.  Perhaps there will be a last minute shift after all, if Johnson can demonstrate that Parliament cannot stop the No Deal Brexit that his Government is actively preparing for: the European Council will meet on October 17.  But it appears that all concerned are now bracing for No Deal.

Some in Number Ten are hopeful that, if it happens, the EU will go for mass mini-deals – and so oil the wheels of economic co-operation.  That would be a rational response to the threat of recession in Germany and elsewhere, and the hard border in Ireland that a No Deal Brexit would bring.  But the EU’s clinging to the backstop, despite its commitment to seek alternative arrangements by December next year, suggests that rationality is in short supply.

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“The backstop is anti-democratic.” Johnson’s letter about it to Tusk. Full Text.

Dear Donald,

United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union

The date of the United Kingdom’s (UK) exit from the European Union (EU), 31 October, is fast approaching. I very much hope that we will be leaving with a deal. You have my personal commitment that this Government will work with energy and determination to achieve an agreement. That is our highest priority.

With that in mind, I wanted to set out our position on some key aspects of our approach, and in particular on the so-called “backstop” in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement. Before I do so, let me make three wider points.

First, Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.

Second, and flowing from the first, I want to re-emphasis the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.

Third, and for the avoidance of any doubt, the UK remains committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area, to upholding the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, to ongoing North-South cooperation, and to retaining the benefits of the Single Electricity Market.

The changes we seek relate primarily to the backstop. The problems with the backstop run much deeper than the simple political reality that it has three times been rejected by the House of Commons. The truth is that it is simply unviable, for these three reasons.

First, it is anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state.

The backstop locks the UK, potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland. It places a substantial regulatory border, rooted in that treaty, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The treaty provides no sovereign means of exiting unilaterally and affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them.

That is why the backstop is anti-democratic.

Second, it is inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU.

When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

The backstop is inconsistent with this ambition. By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad ranges of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.

Accordingly, as I said in Parliament on 25 July, we cannot continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to ‘full alignment’ with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland.

Third, it has become increasingly clear that the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights. While I appreciate the laudable intentions with which the backstop was designed, by removing control of such large areas of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no democratic control, this balance risks being undermined.

The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime.

The broader commitments in the Agreement, including to parity of esteem, partnership, democracy and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can be be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.

Next Steps

For these three reasons the backstop cannot form part of an agreed Withdrawal Agreement. That is a fact we must both acknowledge. I believe the task before us is to strive to find other solutions, and I believe an agreement is possible.

We must, first, ensure there is no return to a hard border. One of the many dividends of peace in Northern Ireland and the vast reduction of the security threat is the disappearance of a visible border. This is something to be celebrated and preserved. This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.

We must also respect the aim to find “flexible and creative” solutions to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. That means that alternative ways of managing the customs and regulatory differences contingent on Brexit must be explored. The reality is that there are already two separate legal, political, economic and monetary jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. This system is already administered without contention and with an open border.

The UK and the EU have already agreed that “alternative arrangements” can be part of the solution. Accordingly:

– I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.

– I also recognise that there will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at whatcommitment might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter.

Time is very short. But the UK is ready to move quickly, and given the degree of common ground already, I hope that the EU will be ready to do likewise. I am equally confident that our Parliament would be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the “backstop”: indeed it has already demonstrated that there is a majority for an agreement on these lines.

I believe that a solution on the lines we are proposing will be more stable, more long lasting, and more consistent with the overarching framework of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement which has been decisive for peace in Northern Ireland. I hope that the EU can work energetically in this direction and for my part I am determined to do so.

I am copying this letter to the President of the European Commission and members of the European Council.

Yours ever,

Boris

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So we’ve had NHS, policing and immigration plans from Johnson. Stand ready for a schools spending pledge.

So Boris Johnson has pledged 10,000 new police officers, as well as a raft of tougher-sounding anti-crime policies, an Australian-style points-based immigration system (not to mention the relaxion of migration rules for scientists), and £1.8 billion for the NHS.  It isn’t hard to see where he will go next, and soon.

The remaining element of Dominic Cummings’s favourite set of policies – tax cuts for lower-paid workers – may have to wait for a publicity push, because these would need legislation, and the Government has no working majority.  Though the Prime Minister could try them on the Commons anyway, daring Labour to vote them down, as part of an Emergency Budget in October (if there is one).

What is likely to come sooner is a Government commitment to spend at least £5,000 on every secondary school pupil.  ConservativeHome understands that this announcement is written into this summer’s campaigning grid.  But we need no special briefing to work this out for ourselves in any event – and nor does anyone else.  For why peer into the crystal of Downing Street announcements when one can read the book: i.e: Johnson’s Daily Telegraph columns?

For it was in one of these, back during the Conservative leadership election, that he pledged “significantly to improve the level of per pupil funding so that thousands of schools get much more per pupil – and to protect that funding in real terms”.  The £5000 figure was briefed out separarely.  This promise was one of the two main big ticket spending items of his campaign, the other being that undertaking to raise police spending.

“It is simply not sustainable that funding per pupil should be £6800 in parts of London and £4200 in some other parts of the country,” the former Mayor of the capital wrote.  Just as the NHS spending announcement was framed by a visit to hospitals in Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, expect any school spending news to be projected by a trip to schools in Leave-voting provincial England: all part of the push to squeeze the Brexit Party.

If that column is any guide, don’t be surprised to see a maths, science and IT element too – which would also be very Cummings – as well as a stress on “giving real parity of esteem to vocational training and apprenticeships”.  There is evidence that these are popular all-round, but especially among older voters.  Gavin Williamson is bound to have a supporting role, just as Priti Patel has had with the weekend’s law and order initiatives, but Johnson will lead.

Like his other spending promises, Johnson’s school pledge may not be deliverable in the event of a No Deal Brexit, and there are inevitably questions anyway about timescale anyway.  But if you want to know what more will be in his campaigning package, look no further.

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