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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo: Reuters)
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (Photo: Reuters)

The reckless brinksmanship of Boris Johnson as Brexit nears

The problem goes beyond the British prime minister’s move to violate an international agreement

Borderless Europe is a great achievement, one which was scarcely imaginable when World War II ended. Such is the power of the Schengen Agreement, which makes borderless travel possible within continental Europe, that Britain—which had sought exemption from it to retain control of its borders when it was part of the European Union—conceded that point to keep the border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland open, complying with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which had ended three decades of sectarian violence.

More than 3,600 people had died during the 30-year period known as “the Troubles". During its worst moments, explosions in British cities were not uncommon. One reason London has fewer garbage bins for a city of its size is that the Irish Republican Army sometimes placed bombs in them.

But peace got its chance. Protestant (many of them Unionists) and Catholic (many of them Nationalists) politicians managed to put aside their bitter differences and peace prevailed, though it was often disrupted by violence. Last year Lyra McKee, a young journalist, was killed while she was reporting a riot in the city known as Derry or Londonderry, depending on your politics. Politicians across parties mourned her death. Peace is fragile anywhere, and in Northern Ireland, especially so.

Maintaining that peace is crucial, which is why when Britain negotiated an orderly departure from the EU, the “Irish Question" proved difficult. European politicians were adamant—rightly so—in backing Ireland, which wanted assurances that the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement—open border—would be respected; British politicians wanted to get the job done with; and Americans, who had helped broker the peace talks, were watching the negotiations. Even in a divided America, there is bipartisan support for an open border between Ireland and the UK.

Eventually, a compromise was reached. But just as there are hardcore extremists among Irish nationalists, who are accused of killing McKee, there are hardcore English nationalists, who—metaphorically at least—want to blow up the Brexit agreement, even if it means taking down the Good Friday Agreement with it.

And so, like the guest who doesn’t know when to leave, Brexit is still sprawled on the sofa in the middle of Britain’s crowded living room. While the UK left the EU in January, it needs to put in place agreements on trade, citizenship rights, and people’s movement, so that in late December, when the departure is formal, the transition is as smooth as possible. The deadline is getting closer, and the British are nowhere near a domestic consensus of what they want. And so British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has done what he knows best—bluff and go to the brink, saying if there is no agreement by 15 October, he is out. On Monday, he won a Parliamentary vote that violates international law—the withdrawal agreement that his government had signed with the EU.

The move makes little sense. It was Johnson’s government that had signed the withdrawal agreement; that agreement is less than a year old; its effects are not even known; and erecting any kind of border risks tensions in Northern Ireland.

Johnson is not known to be a “details man", and when he became prime minister, he realized the complexity of negotiations that lay ahead. The withdrawal agreement lets the traffic of goods between Britain and Northern Ireland be checked, so as to stop smuggling across an open border that could violate any UK-EU trade deal. Northern Irish hardliners who want to remain in the UK were incensed, but British parliamentarians ignored their tantrum.

The months since have been difficult for all countries, busy as they are combating the pandemic. Much time has been lost and the UK has not concluded a trade deal, which would hurt British exporters, in particular farmers, since EU tariffs on farm imports are stiff, to protect European farmers. Johnson also wants to make it harder for European fishing trawlers to ply in British waters, and oddly for a Conservative, he wants to subsidize industries. Johnson’s “technical changes", Britain’s minister for Northern Ireland admits, would violate international law. All former prime ministers—Conservative and Labour—have criticized Johnson.

Johnson, it appears, wants people to believe this is a mere debating ploy. Bluff or not, Europeans—the Irish most of all—are understandably livid. So are Americans, with whom the UK wants a free trade deal, which will be a long chess match, and US lawmakers seem to think that tearing apart the Good Friday Agreement is a bad opening gambit.

On Monday, Britain’s parliament passed Johnson’s proposed changes, although a few members abstained, a couple of officials resigned, and the government said it would look at an amendment. Former Labour leader Ed Milliband witheringly ridiculed Johnson, who scowled and left the House early, as if he was late for an appointment.

Nobody minds Johnson driving down the white cliffs of Dover; the trouble is, he may take the nation with him. Meanwhile, fasten your seat belts. Next stop: a Scottish referendum.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in New York. Read Salil’s previous Mint columns at www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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