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Brexit: a victory of ignorance over rationality

2019-09-19 03:19:24

Preceding the speeches of Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier at the European Parliament in Strasbourg yesterday but by not very much was a piece in the Financial Times purporting to give an insider's view of Monday's Luxembourg meeting between the pair and Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

Headed, "EU fears Brexit reality has dawned too late for Boris Johnson", with the sub-title, "Officials have become increasingly pessimistic about the prospects of a deal with the UK's prime minister", it tells us that: "Boris Johnson's nightmare in Luxembourg was more than just a public embarrassment delivered at the hands of the Grand Duchy's Xavier Bettel".

It was that PR disaster which took the headlines on the day, rather overshadowing the far more important Juncker-Barnier lunch which, according to the FT was something of a "chastening encounter", described as a "penny dropping" moment for the prime minister in office over what it really means to replace the Irish backstop.

The FT's account of the meeting has Johnson being told by his EU counterparts "in no uncertain terms" that the UK's plan to replace the backstop by allowing Northern Ireland to stick to common SPS rules was not enough to prevent customs checks on the vast majority of goods that cross the Irish border.

At that point, we are told, a "befuddled Mr Johnson" turned to David Frost and Stephen Barclay also present at the lunch - and said: "So you're telling me the SPS plan doesn't solve the customs problem?" This, it appears, was part of an abrupt "learning curve" for Johnson in his first face-to-face meeting with Barnier and Juncker since he took office.

An official records Johnson gradually "slumping" in his chair as the reality of the UK's negotiating position and the limited time left to strike an agreement began to dawn. "He wasn't used to hearing it", added the official. But it doesn't stop there. We also get Juncker telling his commissioners in Strasbourg on Tuesday that the Luxembourg lunch was the first time that "Boris Johnson understood the meaning of the Single Market".

Needless to say, a Number 10 official rejected descriptions of the lunch as "nonsense", but then that is precisely what one would expect. What gives the account the ring of truth, though, is our own experience of Johnson whenever he has spoken on the detail of any matters relating to the Single Market.

Two episodes in particular spring to mind, the first being his facile intervention on banana regulation during the referendum campaign and the second his more recent comments on kippers, delivered during his leadership campaign.

In both instances, Johnson demonstrated his profound ignorance of the regulation of which he was complaining but, on a broader front, he also managed to convey a total lack of appreciation of the role of regulation in the facilitation of trade, and therefore its role in the Single Market which is, after all, a regulatory union.

As regards his complaint about a kipper producer having to despatch mail-order consignments in insulated containers with ice-packs, Johnson dismissed this as "pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging, 'elf and safety", despite the measure being introduced to deal with the emerging threat of the low-temperature pathogen, Listeria monocytogenes, about which Johnson knows precisely nothing.

Crucially, the producer in question was conforming to Isle of Man hygiene rules which, in turn, were a copy-out of EU rules. But the key point here is that their adoption allowed direct mail-order sales to the UK mainland without the consignments having to be routed via Border Inspection Posts. In effect, the producer only had a business because the Isle of Man had implemented what Johnson so cavalierly dismissed as "pointless, expensive, environmentally damaging, 'elf and safety".

But if this is the measure of this facile creature, it is also the measure of a supposed leader who, weeks away from a no-deal Brexit, is only just now coming to terms with the nature of the Single Market.

While some readers take me to task about my critical stance on Johnson, can anyone in this kingdom honestly attest that we are being well-served by having this ignorant buffoon at the helm? Can one have anything other than contempt for a politician who lacks even the most basic understanding of his business?

And that brings us to the Juncker and Barnier speeches in Strasbourg yesterday. What was remarkable about both was that, at this late stage, we saw an almost Janet & John-level explanation of the Irish backstop making it easy to accept that this was the text that the pair delivered to Johnson on Monday.

Going through the motions, Juncker told the European Parliament that he still believed an agreement to be desirable and possible "but it needed the British Prime Minister to make concrete, operational and written proposals on alternative ways to achieve the goals of the backstop". "As long as such proposals are not forthcoming", he said, "I cannot tell you, by looking straight into your eyes, that real progress has been made".

If possible, Barnier was more forthright, referring to the Luxembourg meeting, noting that "the new government of the United Kingdom" had explained the provisions of the backstop it did not like. But, said Barnier:
It's not enough to explain to us why we should remove the backstop. We need legally-enforceable solutions in the withdrawal agreement, to address exactly each problem, to prevent each of the risks that Brexit creates. And it was on these goals that we agreed with Theresa May's government.
He then went on to explain:
Just a concrete example: any living animal, any food that enters Northern Ireland from Great Britain enters not only in Ireland but also on the Polish, Luxembourgish, German or Danish market, mechanically, immediately, and we must exercise a control to protect consumers, preserve food safety, prevent any risk of animal disease. And this is also the interest of the citizens and consumers of Northern Ireland, as well as consumers of the rest of the UK.
At this stage in the game, it should not be necessary for the EU's chief negotiator to be spelling out the basics, but after his exposure to Johnson, one can see why he felt the need to do so. In closing his speech, he also felt the need to reiterate that Brexit issues would not disappear if the UK crashed out without a deal. "We will have to settle them in any event, prior to a future partnership with the United Kingdom", he said.

The "considerable" consequences of Brexit, Barnier concluded, are not theoretical. "They are human and social, financial and budgetary, legal and technical". And, by way of a final barb, he added: "More than three years after the British referendum, it is certainly not about pretending to negotiate".

However, his last words were to break with the press release of the Monday when he talked about "this extraordinary and complex negotiation". The man needs to get his story straight there is no "negotiation". Even the EU's chief negotiator can't always get it right. But, in his own words, the UK is merely "pretending".

The one thing where there is no pretence, though, is in the extent of Johnson's ignorance. The Independent picks this up, having Labour's Ian Murray observe that: "Reports that Johnson doesn't understand even the basics about cross-border trade and customs are shocking and deeply worrying", adding: "Out-of-his-depth does not even come close to describing how apparently clueless he is".

Yet, typically of the media, the paper is retailing a Johnny-come-lately comment, way behind the curve. It was already clear that Johnson's grasp of reality was slender, right from his "banana" comments in the referendum campaign. But then, the media often has no better idea of the issues than the politicians on which it reports, as we saw when the BBC tried to tackle the subject of regulation.

More seriously, this level of ignorance reflects a rich vein pervading the entire fabric of the Tory party. This is a party where the rejection of knowledge is almost a rite of passage and the mythology of "fwee twade" is nurtured to the exclusion of any understanding of how the EU actually works.

In this context, it is unsurprising that Johnson displays the level of ignorance he does. The Conservative Party is an institution which places little value on technical knowledge, treating those who display any understanding of things such as the European Union with the gravest of suspicion. Its policies are built on layers of "founding myths", support for which demands a conformity of belief, with an intolerance of dissent that has become a classic example of groupthink.

The myth of "restrictive regulation" is so heavily embedded in the Tory psyche that Johnson is actually articulating and reinforcing the party belief system. Acknowledging reality even if he could get to grips with it - would not win him any friends.

And there I think is one of the great fault lines in British society. We have a political party built on a foundation of snobbery and prestige, the outcome of which is the election of an ignorant buffoon for a leader. The party nurtures and applauds ignorance, rewarding conformity and erecting barriers to prevent the acquisition of knowledge.

The great tragedy of Brexit is that it is confronting a continental system, where there is still at least some residual respect for scholarship. And where the two systems collide, the inevitable consequence is an impasse.

The knowledgeable will not ditch their learning to embrace the myths of the ignorant, while the ignorant lack the intellectual framework to understand what they are told and react to it. In this dialogue of the deaf, we are headed for a no-deal Brexit, the ultimate victory of ignorance over rationality. Its name will be Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson.

And yet, with officials in Brussels concerned that Johnson is wasting their time and playing out talks for as long as possible without presenting proposals possibly with an eye on an upcoming election - EU leaders have given him an ultimatum: he has until the end of the month to come up with a solid alternative to the backstop or he will get his no-deal whether he likes it or not.

How ironic would that be? Just as Johnson really does decide he wants a deal, the prize eludes him not least because he lacks the wherewithal to deliver.