A trade war might be the only way to resolve Brexit once and for all

If we’re lucky, then just the threat of a trade war will be sufficient to make one side back down enough to stabilise the situation – but don’t bank on it

Sean O'Grady
Monday 11 October 2021 14:29
comments
Government needs a plan to make Brexit work, says shadow trade secretary
Leer en Español

Just in case you made the mistake of taking the stuff that comes out of Boris Johnson’s mouth seriously, and were thus under any lingering illusion that Brexit was over and done with, and that Britain is now “prospering mightily” as a consequence, then maybe a trade war with the EU will finally bring reality into focus? As if we haven’t enough troubles…

Let’s face it, this has been brewing for months, if not years – and it may be the only way to resolve the issues. The UK-EU deal wasn’t signed in good faith by Johnson, who always regarded it as a ruse to get him out of a tight political corner and win the 2019 election. Since then, we’ve tried talking and it hasn’t worked. The demands of the EU and the UK about borders are irreconcilable – especially the new one between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Deep down, we surely always suspected that the withdrawal agreement wasn’t the end of the matter?

If we’re all lucky, then just the threat of a trade war will be sufficient to make one side back down enough to stabilise the situation. But such sophisticated calculations can go badly awry. There are risks with taking risks. The EU will gamble that the British are now in such a weak position economically that they will cave in and drop their demands about renegotiating Brexit, maybe if they are given the gift of sausage. Even Johnson and Britain’s Brexit chief Lord Frost, the reckoning goes, will be so frightened by the potential loss of markets and jobs from the imposition of export tariffs – or the French cutting off the electricity – that they’ll stop being silly and actually implement what they signed up to.

The British, it’s true, are hardly able to throw their weight around; but what if they call the EU’s bluff, trigger Article 16 of the hated Northern Ireland protocol, and dare the EU and Ireland to impose a hard trade border on the island of Ireland? It would break the Good Friday Agreement, and it might reignite the Troubles and IRA violence. Who in Dublin or Brussels wants to do that?

When it comes down to it, this is the clash of interests. Quite conceivably, both sides will lose. Without a trade war deciding matters through brute economic and political force, Brexit could drag on indefinitely – the “forever Brexit” the Conservatives promised to end. This week will see yet another round of the informal renegotiation of the Brexit withdrawal deal that Johnson agreed to in 2019, if you can recall those halcyon pre-pandemic days.

The Brexit nightmare – as we see from the shortages and economic dislocation exacerbated by the breaking of economic ties with Europe – is actually only beginning, and, as a shivering turkey-free Christmas looms, and the lights go out, it won’t feel like Britain is prospering mightily after all. British ministers, EU officials and Irish ministers are briefing, threatening and sniping at one another via Twitter. The trade war drums are beating louder.

We should be clear about why this is. It looks very much as though, back in 2019, as the last deadline approached, Johnson just agreed to whatever it was that was left on the table, with all the vagueness and loose ends left hanging in the air, so he could go to the country in the general election and declare that his “oven-ready deal” was indeed done, and that if the country voted for him we could all forget about Brexit once and for all. It’s like he told his chief negotiator and wingman Lord Frost to “just sign the bloody thing and we’ll sort it out later”.

The UK-EU withdrawal agreement was – on the basis of known facts about the character of the prime minister, and his behaviour, and what has transpired since – signed in bad faith. Johnson probably had his fingers crossed behind his back when he agreed to it. It is Johnson’s unfinished symphony, and not a particularly melodic one.

So the UK (or at least its government) basically now wants rid of it, ostensibly because it’s causing trouble in Northern Ireland and it violates UK sovereignty, which was of course known all along. (There were plenty of warnings at the time – not least from the DUP in Northern Ireland, and a very few Tory MPs who thought it dishonourable – and the text of the document is perfectly clear on the major questions.)

At the moment, the EU seems more willing to bend, and will offer some concessions to help make the thing work better – so that, for example, certain types of chilled meat product essential to the British identity will be waved through as they enter Northern Ireland. Victory in the “sausage wars” has been declared, and there is hope that the EU vice-president in charge of appeasing the British, Maros Sefcovic, is on the verge of offering up some more tasty patriotic treats. The chippies of Belfast want their iconic Pukka Pies, and the office workers of Strabane want their proudly Unionist M&S prawn sandwiches, and they will be sorely disappointed if they don’t get them. Moreover, they (or the Unionists at any rate) do not want any kind of border in the Irish Sea, nor any hint of being under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice – which will remain, no matter about the foodie concessions. The arguments, in other words, won’t end just because a Melton Mowbray pork pie has triumphantly marched into a deli in Derry.

What do we suppose would happen if Johnson were actually able to persuade the EU and Ireland to agree to scrap the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol? To perform the “backstop-ectomy” he once promised he would deliver? It would still mean the EU and the UK having to put the border somewhere, unless both sides were happy to just drop the idea of any trading controls at all, and instead rely on spot-checks away from the existing borders, and legally binding agreements with major trusted traders, such as the supermarkets.

I think this, more or less, is what Johnson has in mind, on the grounds that if people stop worrying about a problem it will go away – “magical thinking”, if you will, or the advanced doctrine of “Johnson-Cakeism” in its purest form. That, though, would mean the EU would have to be as relaxed about the integrity of its sacred single market as the British are about their newly renewed “internal market”, and that does not seem to be the case. Of course, no one needs to be worried if a Tesco microwave meal escapes across the border into Ireland; but a consignment of chlorinated chickens, say, fresh in from America, or some other debased British-inspired biohazard circulating in the EU? That would not be acceptable. Besides, the French want their fish back, and they’re not giving up in an election year.

There must be a UK-EU border somewhere. We’ve been trying to find an appropriate place for it for five years, including via those elusive “technological solutions”, or keeping the whole UK in the EU customs union and/or single market. Since 2016, the finest minds on the continent have attempted to wrangle their way through the conundrum, and the Northern Ireland protocol was the best they could do. It still is, and the British should stop pretending there’s something better out there. The protocol is as good as it’s going to get. Everything else is simply dangerous bluff and bluster.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments