Regular readers may be a little bored with me repeating my ‘Interregnum’ thesis every week, but as a framework it appears to work on a growing basis. The thesis is that in this post-globalization phase in world affairs, the boons of globalization are being quickly reversed – low inflation, low rates and geopolitical peace have given way to record high inflation, lightning rate increases and a brutal war in Europe. Another facet is the vandalisation of the pillars and sacred cows of the old globalized world order – from trade agreements to diplomatic ties and niceties.
In the past week, another event has come along to confirm this framework – the attempt by Boris Johnson’s government to jettison the Northern Irish Protocol, an action that would effectively undercut the Good Friday Agreement.
Many of you who do not live in or near Ireland will be forgiven for not understanding the complexity of Irish history, and the particular intricacies of Northern Irish politics and how this has dovetailed into Brexit (for example the ‘backstop’ bamboozled most people including Tory politicians). I especially wish that more members of the Johnson government would spend more time trying to grasp the above and the implications of their careless approach to policy making.
The Good Friday Agreement (1998) which was painstakingly negotiated is one of the diplomatic triumphs of the globalized age, and its main actors received the Nobel Prize. Together with the steady building of a close relationship between Germany and France in recent decades, it is one of Europe’s outstanding diplomatic events, and one that is shared between Britain, Ireland and America.
Now, the Johnson government wants to scrap key elements of the Northern Irish Protocol, which sets out how the flow of goods into Northern Ireland and was designed to recognize the specific situation of Northern Ireland. As it stands, the Protocol in effect keeps it within the EU in that regard, with a ‘border’ across the Irish Sea acting to vet the flow of goods into Northern Ireland. The Protocol was part of the Brexit Agreement signed off by the Tory government, though now unpopular with Unionist leaders who felt that the Protocol was the beginning of a severing of ties between Northern Ireland and Britain.
The majority of members of the Northern Ireland Assembly do not want the Protocol removed or reordered (note for background over 60% of people in Northern Ireland voted against Brexit and those that voted for it now seem most perturbed by its side-effects), neither do the EU, US and Irish governments. Introducing a Bill to scrap the Protocol risks a breach of international law, gravely undermines the reputation of the UK as a reliable international partner and would potentially breach the Good Friday Agreement in that it would displace the role of the European Court of Human Rights in Northern Ireland (formally written into the GFA).
Impracticalities in the Protocol arrangement can and should be negotiated in good faith between the British and Irish governments (who now feel that Anglo-Irish relations are the worst in forty years) and the EU. Yet, the way in which the Johnson government has handled this effectively squanders the possibility of ‘good faith’ negotiations.
What is altogether more puzzling and alarming is why the Johnson government has deployed a strategy that will gain it relatively little (some kudos with Eurosceptics and Unionists) at such a great cost.
The leading explanation is that this is a mixture of a high risk survival strategy by Johnson, coupled with the usual disregard for the consequences of his actions (notably the prime minister’s ethics advisor has just resigned). As with Brexit the calculations of the internal dynamics of the Tory Party trump the welfare of many and the reputation of the UK. Another example is the cruel policy of sending asylum seekers to Rwanda.
A more troubling explanation is institutional decline. In common with other headline policy debates (such as that over international monetary policy and inflation) the latest move is a mistake that aims to cover a previous mistake(s) (Brexit and the way in which London negotiated it).
There is now growing evidence (most recently from economists at the LSE) that Brexit is hampering the UK economy (though Northern Ireland’s economy is thriving ‘within the EU’). This macro context, and the prosecution of policies such as the change to the Protocol, will relegate the UK well below the super powers of the multipolar world. A risk is that the large actors lose patience with it and disregard it, and that in time the same happens to sterling. A trade war with the EU would set this in motion and damage the City.
At a time when the rise and fall of nations is being accelerated by the end of globalization, Boris Johnson is gambling with his nation’s relevance. Around him, the UK is changing. Scotland may soon become independent. Northern Ireland itself is changing slowly but perceptibly (the strong vote for the progressive Alliance Party in the Assembly elections is an example), Brussels has switched its attention to other weighty matters, and the economic climate has darkened.
Following the half-hearted attempt to remove him recently, I suspect Boris’ days may be limited (September) once a credible challenger comes along from the Tory centre or the Labour party. If he does go, there will still remain the task of resetting British democracy (it is not alone in this respect), restoring standards in government and renewing the attractiveness of public service across the civil service in particular.
As a last promising word, a sign that parts of Britain have not lost hope nor contact with Europe, a French brigadier general, Jean Laurentin, took command of the British Army’s 1st Division!