While I was convinced early on that Brexit would be a never-ending tragic soap opera, I had been more optimistic about US politics after Trump lost in November. I was clearly wrong. But even though the US president has changed while the Tory/Brexit government continues in power, there are lot of parallel political developments in the US and UK and they are not exactly reassuring.
There have been comparisons between Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, but I think these comparisons do not quite get to the point. In the US, there is a personality cult around Trump, while in the UK, there is a cult around the idea of Brexit. There is also an element of obsession, of not being able to let go. In the case of Trump, it is the constant relitigation of the 2020 elections, which Joe Biden clearly and fairly won, ranging from questionable election audits over calls for a military coup to rumours that Trump will be reinstated as president in August. In the UK, it is the obsession with the EU, even now that the UK has left; the Tory/Brexit press (Daily Express, Daily Mail, Sun) cannot go a week without blaming the EU for some (perceived) problem in the UK (most recent: the EU conspired to give the UK representative zero points in the most recent Eurovision contest).
There has also been a rewriting of history on both sides of the Atlantic. In the US, Republicans are now pretending that the insurrection of 6 January was either just a bunch of tourists taking photos in the Capitol or antifa protestors dressing up as Trump supporters (obviously, these two explanations cannot be reconciled). In the UK, the rewriting of history refers to “the UK being frozen out of the Single Market”, the Northern Ireland protocol being imposed on the UK etc. It does not seem to matter that the same columnists praised the Northern Ireland protocol just a bit more than a year ago and that is was the UK that decided to leave the Single Market.
Another parallel is that the focus on Trump and Brexit has served as façade to hide an incredible degree of corruption and nepotism. Trump as private person has benefitted substantially from staying as president at his own properties; rather than draining the swamp in DC as he promised, he filled it with his friends and family members; and he regarded the Attorney General of the US as his private attorney, a role that William Barr was too happy to fill, even though the events of 6 January were even too much for him. Similarly, in the UK, the pandemic has resulted in private citizens (including a former prime minister) using their access to ministers to gain advantages in the form of overpriced contracts (with Michael Gove’s recent case just one of several examples). Maybe this best summarised by Tommaso Valletti in his tweet on Italy 20 years ago vs. UK today.
A final parallel is the role of media in both countries. In the US, it is Fox News who has played the role of facilitator of Trumps lies and alternative facts; in the UK, it is the Tory/Brexit press (Daily Express, Daily Mail, Sun), which continues to spread lies on the EU and the Brexit process on a daily basis. It is sometimes hard to tell who is the dog and who is the tail in this relationship; then, again, in the person of Boris Johnson, mis-leading journalism and politics have merged. It has become clear, however, that the Brexit supporting press in the UK would make any authoritarian leader proud!
What about the role of academics/experts? Most economists have pointed to the negative effects of Brexit. There has been a small number of economists and legal scholars who have been happy to lend their academic reputation to support questionable statements, alternative facts and conspiracy theories. Unfortunately, university media departments are always excited to see their academic staff being cited in newspapers, even if it is on conspiracy theories that can be easily proven wrong, which creates perverse incentives for such academics to get quoted as often as possible, no matter how nonsensical their comments are.
While the above seems more like an academic comparison between the transformation of two political parties and movements on both sides of the Atlantic, there is obviously a dangerous element to it, that of undermining democracy. Recently, in the U,. a group of political scientists and historians recently signed a statement of concern, related to Republican attempts to undermine voting rights under the cover of election integrity. And in the UK it has become similarly clear that an unwritten constitution that relies on norms is not sufficient against a government that is keen to tear up democratic norms and traditions and get rid of checks and balances.
Turning to the latest development in the Brexit soap opera, the conflict between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland Protocol (which used to be known as the oven-ready deal in the UK) has serious possible implications for Northern Ireland, the relationship between UK and EU but also the global standing of the UK (as became obvious during the G7 meetings). The British government has managed to destroy any of the remaining trust that the EU and European countries might have had after the bruising Brexit negotiations. It is becoming clearer and clearer that the British government signed up to the Northern Ireland Protocol and thus the border in the Irish Sea knowing well what this implied but without the intention of ever implementing it. Statements such as “we underestimated the costs” are contradicted by former government officials at the centre of the discussions in 2019 (also here). And it is this perfidious behaviour and break-down in trust that ultimately makes further compromises from the EU side so much more difficult – given that the British government has no interest in complying with the spirit (much less with the letter) of this agreement, any compromise by the EU would lead just to further undermining of the Protocol and controls by the British government.
Why does this matter? When the UK decided to leave Single Market and Customs Union, it was obvious that there had to be a border somewhere. Imposing a border in the Irish Sea is easier than imposing a land border between Northern and the Republic of Ireland (and one can argue is much more compliant with the Good Friday Agreement). And while some British 19th century nostalgics would like to see the border between Ireland and the rest of the EU, this shows a degree of foolishness hard to beat even after five years of Brexiters’ stupidity. And while there has been a lot of focus on unionist resistance in Northern Ireland against the Irish Sea Border, it remains to point out that (i) 56% of Northern Irish voters voted against Brexit in 2016, (ii) the unionist parties do not represent the majority of the voters in Northern Ireland and (iii) Northern Ireland’s voters support the Protocol 47% to 42% according to a recent poll.
One can envision many different ways how this will end. If the UK government continues with its aggressive stance, one can expect sanctions from the EU, with a tit-for-tat conflict emerging. And if the UK government insists on unilaterally deviating from the NIP agreement or even suspending it completely, there will be no other choice for the Republic of Ireland (and, yes, there will be pressure from Brussels and other European capitals) to start controls at the land border with Northern Ireland. It is easy to see that this will not calm but rather further raise the temperature. As much as I hope for peace, I also hope that no one will forget who triggered this conflict – Boris Johnson who first refused (during the campaign) to acknowledge that Brexit might constitute problems for peace on the Irish island and then signed up for an international treaty he never intended to comply with.
Ultimately, Brexit is primarily a domestic politics show in the UK. David Cameron called the referendum to settle the EU dispute within his own party, Theresa May started out with a hard Brexit stance in 2016 to polish her credentials vis-à-vis the European Research Group, and Boris Johnson signed up for the Northern Ireland Protocol to win an election. Even the resistance to actually implementing what has been signed seems to be purely driven by political considerations – keep alive the conflict with the EU to divert voters’ attention
14. Jun, 2021