Deal or no deal: Brexit is loosening the ties binding the four nations
The really was a lot riding on the dinner.
Boris Johnson doesn’t travel to have a nice meal with EU leaders very often anyway. But as the Prime Minister flew over to Brussels to sit down with EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen, with the UK teetering on the edge of a no deal Brexit, the stakes could hardly have been higher.
The consequences of leaving the EU without a trade deal have been well known for some time, after all. It may have been more than two years since Theresa May asserted that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, but the closer the prospect comes, the more severe the implications seem to become.
The warnings were clear over the last four years. Rising prices, driven by the need to trade with the bloc on punishing World Trade Organization terms, would be combined with queues at the border for those exporting goods. Port authorities had already stated that a two-minute delay at Dover would lead to 17-mile tailbacks, while fears had grown that a lack of domestic storage space could prevent firms from stockpiling in an attempt to mitigate disruption.
No deal would damage the UK’s ability to cooperate with European partners over security and data sharing, we were warned, financial institutions could be blocked from accessing European markets and supplies of medicines would be disrupted.
Yet here we are. Rightly or wrongly, Johnson has been playing a very risky game.
And, given his decision to tear up his own ‘oven ready’ deal earlier this year, it’s been tempting to wonder whether a no deal Brexit had been the UK Government’s intended outcome all along.
Not that Johnson would admit that if it was true. Instead, to the Prime Minister, attempts to reach a trade deal were being impeded by unreasonable demands from Brussels.
Speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions, he claimed that the EU was seeking an “automatic right” to retaliate against the UK following any divergence in labour or environmental standards, through the introduction of punitive new tariffs on goods.
“I don’t believe that those are terms that any prime minister of this country should accept,” he said.
He also claimed that it wanted the UK to become the “only country in the world” not to have “sovereign control over its fishing waters”.
And so the dinner, which included quite a bit of seafood, looked to be a pretty awkward one.
But it could have been worse. Questions over the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland and the future of the Good Friday Agreement were meant to have been answered with a solution announced by Michael Gove, based in a compromise in which Northern Ireland would get access to both EU and UK markets, yet even this apparent solution brought further complications.
The Minister for the Cabinet Office had branded the agreement the “best of both worlds” for Northern Ireland, claiming the deal would ensure there will be no additional tariffs for businesses and “unfettered access for goods that come from NI to the UK”.
Gove said: “That means that businesses in Northern Ireland have the opportunity to enjoy the best of both worlds: access the European single market, because there’s no infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and at the same time unfettered access to the rest of the UK market.”
In reality, the move represented a clear backtrack from UK ministers, who withdrew highly controversial measures, previously introduced to the Internal Market Bill, which even the government admitted would have breached international law.
Yet inevitably the statement brought further questions, not least how Johnson could justify the accommodation given the rest of the UK would be refused the same treatment.
To Gove, the solution was fair. He said: “Northern Ireland is in a unique situation. The only land border that the UK has with the European Union is on the island of Ireland.
“Over the course of the last 22 years we’ve seen real gains made through the peace process and it was the aim of all the political parties in Northern Ireland and the first minister and deputy first minister from unionist and republican traditions to ensure that we could safeguard the peace process but also make sure that Northern Ireland’s businesses could benefit from the strength of the UK internal market.”
And so while Northern Irish first minister Arlene Foster was happy, voices in Scotland questioned the decision. To SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford it was proof that Scotland was “being shafted”.
As he put it in PMQs: “By this government’s own admission, it was confirmed that Northern Ireland is getting “the best of both worlds” – access to the EU’s single market and customs union. This is great news for businesses in Northern Ireland but leaves Scotland, who also voted Remain, dealing with the hardest of Brexits.
“What is good for Northern Ireland is surely good enough for Scotland. When Boris Johnson makes his deal in Brussels, he’ll be selling out Scotland.
“Baroness Ruth Davidson has said such an act would ‘undermine the integrity of the UK’. The former Scottish Tory constitution spokesperson said it would be ‘the end of the union’. They, along with the former Scottish secretary, said that if this were to happen, they would all resign.
“The Prime Minister can spin all he likes, but everyone can now see the total contempt this UK Government holds for Scotland’s interests. Members of his Scottish branch office told him how unfair and damaging it would be to deny Scotland access to the EU’s single market and customs union while at the same time delivering it for Northern Ireland.”
The PM wasn’t drawn on the issue – simply repeating previous claims that Scotland would benefit from regaining control of money, borders and laws. Yet, as Blackford pointed out – and regardless of how much easier the decision would make the PM’s meeting with von der Leyen – the Scottish Tories have long warned of the dangers of differential treatment for Northern Ireland, with both Davidson and then Scottish secretary David Mundell writing to then prime minister Theresa May to state they “could not support” different deals inside the UK which could undermine the union.
May, Davidson and Mundell are now all in different jobs – they might well be glad of the fact – and with Johnson’s premiership marked by a series of blunders regarding Scotland, there remains a feeling that his approach has consistently made the job of Scottish Conservative leader harder and harder.
And while commentators watched each new development, desperately searching for tell-tale clues of the possible outcome of negotiations, it’s clear that regardless of the trade talks Brexit will have huge implications for the future of the union.
To the SNP, the UK voting to leave the EU with a majority in Scotland voting to remain had always represented an opportunity. Yet four years on, with the consequences clearer, following a protracted and chaotic set of negotiations and amid the crisis brought by COVID, something seemed to shift.
Even opponents of independence began to express concern over the impact of Brexit on devolution, and by the time the Internal Market Bill appeared before MSPs, disquiet had turned to outrage. The bill was intended to establish rules on trade and regulations post-Brexit, yet to devolved administrations it represented an attack on their powers.
As Liverpool University professor Michael Dougan explained: “The starting assumption for the bill seems to be that regulatory divergence by Scotland and Wales is a problem. It is not an expression of local democracy or a valid search for different solutions to societal problems in Scotland and Wales, but a problem that needs to be managed.”
That was the polite description. As Dougan put it on another occasion, the bill represented “a fundamental rewrite of devolution”.
And so Johnson came back from Brussels, with the deadline pushed back by a few days to give negotiators one last chance at reaching agreement. Officials scrambled to find a way to disentangle the bonds built over 50 years of union, while at the same time, the ties binding the four nations of the UK seemed to loosen.