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Brexit: clutching at straws

2019-09-20 06:04:41

According to multiple reports, Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson is once again claiming that the government is making progress in the Brexit talks, telling reporters: "I don't want to exaggerate the progress that we are making, but we are making progress".

The reason for this optimism, heavily hyped by the Telegraph, is Jean-Claude Juncker himself who yesterday told the European Parliament that he doesn't have any emotional attachment to the backstop. "Now that", says Johnson, "is progress - they weren't saying that a month ago".

If this is all he has to offer (and we've not seen anything else apart from vague noises from Juncker about doing a deal by 31 October), then this gets marked down as just more of the delusional rhetoric that we're getting from this quarter. Johnson has a habit of saying anything for effect, regardless of the actual situation – even if he's the only man in the country outside his own staff who actually believes what he's saying.

Returning briefly to yesterday's post, where I talked of the "founding myths" which drove the Tory Party's understanding of the EU, overnight I recalled another example of the Johnson delusion, which I should have mentioned in my piece.

This came in the authored piece he wrote for last week's Sunday Telegraph, where he refers to the 2016 referendum, whence "the people of this country were asked to vote on whether they wanted to stay in the EU, or leave". He continues:
It was right and proper that they should be asked. After more than 40 years of membership, the EU has avowedly morphed into something very different from the proposition of the mid-Seventies.

It has become a political union, with a conscious and self-proclaimed ambition to take ever more powers to central federal institutions in Brussels, and to build a European political “identity”. Naturally, there will be many who regard this project as a high ideal. But as a system of government, it is – even according to its supporters – remote, bureaucratic, costly, opaque and its signature economic project, the euro, has had harsh consequences for many member states.
This is classic Tory myth and over the years I have heard it from the lips of numerous MPs and Conservative supporters. It is how they reconcile the party having taken us into the EEC and supporting membership in the 1975 referendum. In the annals of Tory mythology, we joined in good faith this happy, cuddly trade agreement with the Six, called the Common Market. All would have been fine had not these fiendish continentals decided to morph it into something different – a devilish political union – when we weren't looking.

This utter tosh sustains the Tory Party and, fiction though it may be, here we find it in all seriousness repeated by our prime minister in office in a newspaper column, as if it was the literal truth.

The appearance of this mythology tells us that we are not dealing with a rational animal, neither the Tory Party nor Johnson. In the latter case, we cannot rely on an evidence-driven resolution to Brexit. This is a man whose perception of the EU is defined by his belief system, devoid of any contact with reality.

Another nail in that same coffin comes in the piece in The Times, penned by leader-writer Simon Nixon.

By far the most jaw-dropping revelation so far to have emerged in the extracts from David Cameron's memoirs, Nixon writes, was buried in his account of the build-up to the Brexit referendum. Recalling his efforts to persuade Johnson to back "remain", the former prime minister noted that, "Boris had become fixated on whether we could pass legislation that said UK law was ultimately supreme over EU law".

Cameron duly dispatched Oliver Letwin on a "nightmare round of shuttle diplomacy" between Johnson and the government's lawyers to see if a way could be found to address his concerns by domestic legislation. "But those lawyers were determined to defend the purity of European law and kept watering down the wording". According to Cameron, this epitomised the problem at the heart of the UK's relationship with the EU: "Our officials were determined to play by the rules".

Says Nixon, what makes this extract extraordinary is that it confirms that six years after he became prime minister and just weeks before he gambled Britain's membership of the EU in a referendum, Cameron didn't understand how it worked. Indeed, "it appears he still hasn't grasped that the supremacy of EU law in the areas over which the EU has competence is not a bug but the essential feature without which it couldn't work".

Nixon then avers that Cameron's ignorance of the fundamental principles of how the EU operates is testimony to the enduring hold of one of the most powerful narratives in British politics. This idea that rules are for other people, that the EU's insistence on the integrity of its legal order is an alien and unnecessary continental obsession, continues to hold an unshakeable grip over a large swathe of Britain’s political class, despite all that has happened over the past three years.

In Nixon's view, Theresa May suffered from the same delusion and now that Johnson is prime minister, he observes, the whole cycle has started again. Johnson took office in July, apparently determined to test the narrative to destruction, insisting that by threatening to leave the EU without a deal on 31 October he could convince Brussels to drop its insistence on the purity of EU law and a requirement that everyone play by the rules.

For all this, Nixon concludes that it is not just the fate of Brexit that is the issue here, but the credibility of the British state. Narratives, he says, don't just matter in domestic politics, they matter to markets, too.

And "when it is clear that three prime ministers in succession have reached the highest office with a flawed understanding of how the basic framework underpinning a G7 country's most important commercial and security relationships works", he adds, "it is clear something has gone profoundly awry in Britain's political system".

So far so good, but Nixon really hasn't put it all together. He uses the term "not a bug but a feature" in talking about the supremacy of EU law, but he doesn't realise that the flawed understanding of the nature of the EU is, within the Tory Party, of similar character – not a bug but a feature. The mythology within the party is impenetrable, and quite beyond correction.

Furthermore, it is all very well Nixon complaining just now about Johnson, but the media has been giving this charlatan a free pass for most of his career, the ignorance of journalists – and the lack of challenge – allowing the rot to continue unchecked.

In fact, it is fair to say that the media is a significant part of the problem, right up to press, witness the fatuous commentary from Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC website. There she claims that, in the search for a Brexit deal, "politics, not process, will make the difference".

If one never learns anything else about the EU, it is that it is a rules-based organisation where process is everything. And it is the vain insistence of UK politicians that the EU should abandon its processes and adopt a freebooting, casual approach to the Irish question that is at the heart of the Brexit impasse.

Yet this stupid woman, schooled on an endless diet of political gossip, is unable to see beyond her own horizons and understand that the EU is not a mirror-image of the Westminster bear pit in which she is so enthusiastically immersed.

Nor, of course, are we seeing the march of ignorance confined to the top levels of politics and the media. Yesterday, we saw Brexit secretary Steve Barclay make his own sturdy contribution at a breakfast event hosted by Europa Press in Madrid, Spain.

In an aggressive speech, laden with threats, Barclay described the pursuit of frictionless trade across the Irish border as a "purist" position – despite it being an objective of both the UK government and the EU – while insisting on the removal of the backstop, as well as the reliance on regulatory alignment.

Demanding "a genuine negotiation with creative and flexible solutions from both sides", Barclay in effect is expecting the EU to abandon its Single Market rules in order to achieve a deal – the very essence of what cannot be done without the EU breaching its own red lines. Yet, according to Barclay, the EU must "take risks" with the Irish border.

Alongside the speech though, the UK government "shared" documents with Brussels setting out ideas for a Brexit deal – three "non-papers", on food-safety, animal and plant health (SPS), customs, and manufactured goods. One EU diplomat described them as a "smokescreen" that would not prevent a disorderly exit on the 31 October.

Meanwhile, Downing Street has refused to commit to tabling its Brexit plans for replacing the Irish backstop within two weeks, branding it an "artificial deadline". A UK government spokesman said it would not recognise France and Finland's joint request for a deadline of the end of September and would only table firm proposals when Johnson was ready.

Yet, for all that, we have Sky News plucking quotes from an interview with Jean-Claude Juncker to the effect that he was doing "everything to get a deal". But, when we are told that Juncker "was now prepared to get rid of the controversial backstop plan" but only on condition that "alternative arrangements [are put in place] allowing us and Britain to achieve the main objectives of the backstop", we know that we're looking at the ritual clutching at straws. Nothing has changed.

But nor will anything change. We must recognise that we have a government which is temperamentally and intellectually incapable of brokering a deal with the European Union. Unless something very drastic changes, a no-deal Brexit is a matter of inevitability.