Prime Minister Johnson’s Letter To Council President Tusk

By John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach)

This letter is important because it sets out the thinking of the new UK Government. It should be taken seriously and analysed. It contains a number of internal contradictions which should be, politely but persistently, probed by EU negotiators. I hope to explore some of these in this note.
WHAT IS THE ESSENCE OF SOVEREIGNTY?

Some of the terms used in the letter need to be defined.

For example, Mr Johnson claims the Irish backstop is inconsistent with the “sovereignty” of the UK as a state.
All international agreements impinge on sovereignty. But the ultimate sovereignty of a state concerns the states monopoly on the use of force within its territory. UK sovereignty in Britain and Northern Ireland is not interfered with by the backstop, in that basic understanding of state sovereignty.

WHAT IS JOHNSON OFFERING ON THE UNIQUE CHALLENGES FACING IRELAND?

Mr Johnson’s letter says

“ 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.”

It continues

“ 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.”

Boris Johnson recognises what he calls the “unique challenges” Brexit poses for Ireland.It would be useful to ask him to set out in his own words 

  • what he thinks these “unique challenges” are, and to ask him to set out his own words
  • how he believes these can be met and
  • how his government might contribute to this.

I have the sense that neither he, nor his fellow Brexit advocates, have ever undertaken such a mental exercise.

Again, he says he is “unconditionally” committed to the “letter and the spirit “of the UK’s obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. 

It would be useful to ask Prime Minister Johnson to put in his own words what he considers these obligations to be, particularly as regards the “spirit “of the Agreement.

DIVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BREXIT, CONVERGENCE IS CENTRAL TO BELFAST AGREEMENT

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 means Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards diverging from those of Ireland (as a member of the EU).

FROM WHICH EU STANDARDS DOES UK WISH TO DIVERGE?

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 wants, according to Mr Johnson. 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 these two parts of Mr Johnson’s letter. On the detail of the backstop, he says

“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 range of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.”

This point has some validity in its own terms. If no alternative solution is found, and the backstop comes into effect, new EU rules, in the making of which the UK will not have had a hand, with apply either to the whole of the UK or to Northern Ireland.

So far the UK has been unable to come up with a credible alternative to the backstop, that would allow Brexit to go ahead, but also to avoid progressive divergence in regulations between the two parts of Ireland. 

That is the core problem, and Mr Johnson’s letter makes clear that “divergence” is the whole point of Brexit and “central to our future democracy”. It is important the UK public understand what their government is committing itself to.

IT IS BREXIT, NOT THE BACKSTOP, THAT UPSETS THE BALANCE

MrJohnson also claims 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”

He is right to say that the Belfast Agreement is a carefully negotiated balance. But Brexit, of its very nature, 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 between those jurisdictions. Brexit upsets the balance by forcing a choice between

  • having the divergence/border between North and South in Ireland (thereby favouring the  “unionist” position) or 
  • having the divergence/border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK (thereby favouring the “nationalist” position).

Brexit alone is responsible for forcing such a choice. And Brexit is a UK initiative, not something forced upon it. The only way to preserve the “balance”, to which Mr Johnson says he is committed, would be to dis-aggregate the regulations into categories, and have half the controls North/ South and half on an East/ West basis within the UK. This would be clumsy and would take years to negotiate. But so also is Brexit.

MINORITY RIGHTS AND BREXIT

Mr Johnson’s letter refers to

 “respect for minority rights”.

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.  Brexit, as promoted by Mr Johnson, is a radical rejection of this minority rights aspect of the Good Friday Agreement.

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.

He 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 strange sentence. It says the commitments “can” be met if we “explore” other solutions. An exploration by its nature is uncertain, and the use of this term contradicts the confident statement that solutions “can” be found. In any event, Mr Johnson ought to have come up with the solution himself by now.

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

Mr Johnson goes on

“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. Controls on what goods and services may cross its borders are essential to the EU Single Market.  This is especially the case if the UK decides to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs to the ones applied by EU. 

Given that “divergence” from EU rules is what Mr Johnson says Brexit is all about, inviting the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that, like his fan President Trump, Boris Johnson would like to dissolve the EU!

With compliments of John Bruton former Prime Minister of Ireland