Brexit And The Belfast Agreement

Compliments of John Bruton, former Taoiseach, former EU Ambassador and former vice President of the EPP

Brexit is about divergence between the two parts of Ireland, between Ireland and Britain, and between Britain and Europe.

 The debate about Brexit has also contributed to increased policy divergence between the representatives of the two traditional communities in Northern Ireland. It has deepened the divide. Thankfully, the Alliance Party and its Leader, Naomi Long MEP, are providing a voice for those who want a new way forward, freed from the constraining categories of the past.

 Whereas Brexit is about divergence, the Belfast Agreement of 1998, negotiated so painstakingly between the Irish and UK governments, and between the parties in Northern Ireland, was about convergence…….  convergence between the two communities in Northern Ireland, convergence between the two parts of Ireland, and convergence between Ireland and Britain.

 It was supported at the time by both the EU and the US and endorsed by referenda in both parts of Ireland. Ireland changed its constitution by referendum in 1998 to accommodate it, no minor matter.

Brexit arose from a referendum in the UK in 2016, in which the larger populations in England and Wales were able to outvote the smaller populations in Scotland and Northern Ireland, who favoured remain.

One of the fundaments of democracy is that governance should have the consent of the governed. One of the fundaments of a successful of different nations, as the EU has shown, is respect for minorities and smaller nations.

 Brexit had the consent of the voters of England and Wales, in the 2016 Referendum, but it did not have the consent of the voters of Northern Ireland, nor of Scotland. 

It could be said that Brexit, no matter what way it may now  be implemented, will change the status of Northern Ireland, and will do so without the consent of the people living in Northern Ireland.

WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

 In his recent letter to his fellow EU Heads of Government, Prime Minister Johnson claimed that the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state. 

 All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. 

But the sovereignty of a state primarily consists in a state having a monopoly on the use of force within its territory. The backstop does not diminish UK sovereignty in that understanding of sovereignty. 

By joining the EU in 1973, the UK agreed to pool other aspects of its rule making authority in some other specified areas of life, with other EU member states. It entered into a succession of EU Treaties on that basis.

 While  it was always open  in international law to the UK , to renounce these Treaty commitments, as it is now doing,  the UK was, and is, obliged to take proper account of the effect of the effect of such a decision on its fellow member states of the EU.

After all, these other EU states, including Ireland, acted  in good faith on the basis that these shared Treaty commitments would continue to be honoured by the UK.  Ireland acted on that legitimate assumption when it changed its constitution to facilitate the Belfast Agreement it made with the UK in 1998. 

As it is the UK that is taking the initiative to renounce the EU Treaties it has with Ireland and other EU states, it is for the UK to take the primary responsibility for finding a way to reconcile that initiative with other Treaty commitments of the UK , notably  its legal Agreement made in Belfast in 1998.That is how international relations work and why renouncing Treaty commitments is a rare occurrence. 

Unfortunately, the UK never faced up to that responsibility.

 And it was the EU side that had to come up with a proposal to do this, the so called Irish backstop.

 The EU would never have had to do this if the UK had faced up openly to its responsibilities under the Belfast Agreement, when it started to promote the idea of Brexit . That was a deep failure of statecraft on the part of the UK, and of the UK alone.

THE IMPORTANCE OF RULES IN INTERNATIONAL COMMERCE

Adhering to Treaty commitments is usually in a state’s self interest. 

This is because, in international commerce, rules are important. That is a commercial and political reality.

 Without shared rules or understandings, commerce would be impossible.

 The EU is an engine for

  •  making rules democratically,
  •  enforcing them consistently and
  •  interpreting them uniformly.

 I do not think these realities of international commerce were explained to the UK electorate by their leaders over the last 40 years, which is why the English and Welsh electorate fell for the Brexit delusion.. 

WHAT IS  PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND AS A RESULT OF BREXIT?

Mr Johnson’s letter to his fellow EU leaders said

“ 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.”

He continued

“ 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.”

These are fine words. But they lack specific content. 

So far Mr Johnson’s government has not spelled  out , in detail and on paper

+ what  these “unique challenges” are,
+ how it believes these can be met and
+ what his government  is prepared to do to that end.

Any ideas the UK may now  have are being held back as a negotiating tactic. 

That is NOT a good faith approach to international relations.

THE KEY PARAGRAPH IN PRIME MINISTER JOHNSON’S LETTER

Later in his letter, Mr Johnson says 

“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.”

This is the most revealing paragraph of the entire letter.

The whole point of Brexit, according to Mr Johnson, is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.

 This  would mean, in the absence of a backstop, Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards  will continuously, and progressively over time, diverge further and further away from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU). 

 Although it has been promoting Brexit for three years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.

Divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK   now seems to want, according to Mr Johnson. That was not the approach of the May government. 

The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be. The more the UK rules diverge, the bigger the barriers will have to be.

 On day one, relatively few border controls may be necessary. But, by day one thousand and one, after the deliberate divergence had been done by the UK, far more border controls will be necessary.

Nobody knows what rules this, or a future UK, government will change and in what direction. That is why the issue of the impact of Brexit on the island of Ireland HAS to be settled upfront, in the Withdrawal Treaty. Hence the backstop.

Given that the Good Friday Agreement is all about convergence (not divergence) between the two parts of Ireland, and between Britain and Ireland, there is a head on contradiction between  Mr Johnson’s proclaimed commitment to the Belfast Agreement , and his commitment that the UK progressively and intentionally diverging from EU standards.

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes this clear, “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and  according to Mr Johnson this divergence is “central to our future (British) democracy”. 

Prime Minister Johnson said

“ 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”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance.

But it is Brexit ,of its very nature,  that upsets that balance. 

Brexit, as Mr Johnson’s letter says, is about divergence. 

If there is to be divergence between jurisdictions, there must be border controls or barriers of some kind between those jurisdictions.

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to  “respect for minority rights” and to “consent”

 The majority of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because a majority in the wider UK voted for Brexit..

 The people of Northern Ireland have not “consented” to Brexit, or to the new barriers, controls, and costly bureaucracy that flow from it.

Mr Johnson says

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

It is true that the Agreement does not say this in terms.

 But, at the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime.

 That was taken for granted, and did not have to made explicit in the Agreement.

 If Brexit was a possibility in 1998, it would have been a UK responsibility to have brought  up the compatibility of the Agreement with a possible UK EU departure. 

There is no evidence that either the UK government, or the Conservative official opposition, raised this possibility in 1998.

Prime Minister Johnson goes on

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

This is a strangely vague and dreamy sentiment for the champion of Brexit  to express, when we are barely a month away from the 31 October deadline. There is no solid proposal, just possibilities and explorations. Not enough at this stage from a responsible sovereign government.

I now need to pose the following question.

DOES MR JOHNSON WANT TO BREAK UP THE EU SINGLE MARKET?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“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.”

This reads to me like a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market. 

He seems to want the EU to legally bind itself not to enforce its rules at its borders.

He   thus seems to want some sort of “no man’s land” in the vicinity of the Irish border where no controls or checks would apply.

 This is an open invitation to criminal and subversive organisations, who have financed themselves in the past by smuggling.

 Given that one such, smuggling financed , criminal organisation attempted to murder one of his predecessors as Conservative leader, one would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has not studied the history of his party closely enough.

Controls on the goods and services ,that may cross its borders, are essential to the EU Single Market. 

Such controls are especially necessary because

 +  the UK has decided to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs, or different quality standards for goods and services to the ones applied by EU, once it has left, and

+  Prime Minister Johnson has said the UK will deliberately  and increasingly diverge from EU environmental , product, and labour standards.

 The EU will not be able to continue to lead the world in, for example, setting higher standards to protect the climate, and the privacy of the data of its citizens, if it were to allow its nearest neighbour, and recently departed member, to undercut its standards with impunity.

The requirements to be fulfilled by Ireland, as part of the EU Customs territory, at its borders and its ports, are set out in immense detail in the EU Customs Code. The Code was adopted in October 1992 by Council Regulation 2913/92

 It requires the uniform application of the Code across the entire EU territory.

The fact that Mr Johnson has invited the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that he would like to the EU to dissolve itself altogether !

Compliments of John Bruton