By Bernard Purcell
Britain, under PM Boris Johnson is flouting its international obligations in the most disingenuous, undemocratic and damaging way, former Taoiseach John Bruton told an international audience.
Former Fine Gael leader Mr Bruton, a former EU Ambassador to the US, is a lifelong Anglophile whose own personal political philosophy is closest to ‘One Nation Tories’, some of whom are fellow farmers.
Which is why his point-by-point denunciation of Mr Johnson’s ‘destructive’ handling of Brexit in a speech in Brussels this week is all the more pertinent.
Mr Bruton made his remarks delivering the Brendan Halligan lecture to the Irish Institute for International and European Affairs in Brussels, named after one of its founders, a former MEP and former secretary general of Ireland’s Labour Party.
Throughout he accused Britain, under Boris Johnson, of bad faith and a failure to study the history of even his own political party.
He accused Mr Johnson of seeking to use the Border to deliberately sabotage the EU internal market.
The British Prime Minister’s fecklessness toward the Border and customs infrastructure would only create a smugglers’ paradise that would enrich terrorist and criminal organisations, some of whom had murdered, and tried to murder, Mr Johnson’s own party colleagues, said Mr Bruton.
Above all, he warned, it is important to resist repeated British attempts to isolate Ireland and kick the issue of Northern Ireland – and the impact of the Border on the EU Single Market – into the long grass until after all other post-Brexit negotiations are finished.
“The UK knows full well what Ireland will be legally obliged to do as a continuing member of the Single Market and Customs Union.
“The fact that Mr Johnson has invited the EU not to enforce its own rules, raises the suspicion that he would like to the EU to dissolve itself altogether,” he warned.
“As Greece was for many years, Ireland may soon be cut off from the rest of the EU by the territory of a non-member. We will be a frontier state, never a comfortable position in international relations.
“We will need to work harder than ever before to overcome the barriers that may be placed in our way,” said Mr Bruton.
He stressed that, as a sovereign nation, the UK is entirely within its rights to leave the EU but added that in doing so it is ignoring the expressed wish of voters in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
And it is seeking to evade its responsibilities to minimise the damage to its neighbouring states, said Mr Bruton. Chief among these is the Belfast Agreement, he added.
“The EU is a treaty based organisation. States are entitled to withdraw from treaties. But they are not entitled to so in a way that nullifies the value of other treaties that still bind them. They are obliged to take account of the effect of their withdrawal on neighbouring states.
“The UK is still bound by the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and the Anglo Irish Treaty that underpins it.
“Brexit, in the extreme form contemplated by the current UK government (no customs union and no single market), poses an existential threat to the Belfast Agreement.
“Mrs May tried to face up to that contradiction. Her successor, Boris Johnson so far refuses to do so,” said the former Taoiseach.
Mr Bruton said that Mr Johnson had written to his fellow EU heads of government to say the point of Brexit is to “diverge” from EU standards on environment, product and labour standards.
“This would mean, in the absence of the Irish backstop, that Northern Ireland’s environment, product, and labour standards will continuously, and progressively over time, diverge further and further away from those of Ireland (as a continuing member of the EU) and of the rest of Europe.
“Significantly, although it has been promoting Brexit for years now, the UK government has yet to say which EU standards it wants to diverge from, and why it wishes to do so.
“Most Brexit supporters would have difficulty naming one EU based law that has had an adverse effect on their lives.
“It is, therefore, reasonable to conclude from Mr Johnson’s letter, that divergence, for its own sake, is what the UK wants. That was not the approach of the May government,” he continued.
“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 Mr Johnson’s proclaimed commitment to the Belfast Agreement , and his commitment that the UK will progressively and intentionally diverge from EU standards.
The more regulatory divergence there is between the two parts of Ireland, the more border controls or other barriers there will have to be,” he said.
“On day one, relatively few border controls may be necessary.
“But, by day one thousand and one, after the deliberate divergence had been done by the UK, far more border controls will be necessary.
“By day two thousand and one, in about six years from now, the UK rules and tariffs will have diverged even further from EU ones, and even greater barriers and controls will then be needed between North and South in Ireland, and between Ireland and Britain,” he said.
Leaving all this over until the wider trade negotiation with the UK, if one is ever concluded and ratified, might have meant that the UK government would never have faced up to the issue, he said.
Mr Bruton said the current British government “would probably have tried to agree everything else, and to leave the inconvenient ‘Irish problem’ off to the very end of the negotiation, in the hope of isolating Ireland.”
A backstop covering the whole UK is in the existing Withdrawal Agreement at the request of the UK.
“But it is (also) the best outcome for Ireland, because East/West trade supports even more jobs in Ireland, than does North/South trade, although both are very important,” he said.
He said Mr Johnson professes that the backstop goes against consent, and respect for minorities.
Yet the majority of people in Northern Ireland and Scotland voted against Brexit, but their wishes are to ignored because people in England and Wales voted for Brexit, he said.
“One of the fundaments of a successful union between different nations is a decision-making process that shows respect for minorities and smaller nations.
“The purely majoritarian Referendum allowed two of the UK’s nations to overrule the other two. That would not happen in our European Union,” he said.
“I do not think these realities of international commerce were explained to the UK electorate by their leaders over the last 40 years, which is why the English and Welsh electorate fell for the Brexit delusion,” he said.
“(But) the people of Northern Ireland have not ‘consented’ to Brexit, or to the new barriers, controls, and costly bureaucracy that flow from it.
“Brexit, no matter what way it may now be implemented, will change the status of Northern Ireland, and will do so without the consent of the people living in Northern Ireland,” he said.
Mr Bruton refuted Mr Johnson’s claims that the backstop diminishes UK sovereignty.
“While it was always possible in International Law for the UK to renounce Treaty commitments, as it is now doing, the UK was, and is, obliged to take proper account of the effect this has on other parties to the Treaty.
“After all, these other EU states, including Ireland, acted in good faith on the basis that these shared EU Treaty commitments would continue to be adhered to by the UK.
“Ireland acted on that assumption when it changed its constitution to facilitate the Belfast Agreement it made with the UK in 1998.
“It is the UK that is now taking the initiative to renounce the EU Treaties, so it is for the UK to take the primary responsibility for finding a way to reconcile that renunciation with the other Treaty commitments it has made, notably its legal Agreement made in Belfast in 1998.
“The UK never faced up to that responsibility.
“That was a failure of statecraft on the part of the UK, and of the UK alone.
“At the time the Agreement was negotiated, both the UK and Ireland were in the same customs and regulatory regime, that of the EU.
“That was taken for granted, and did not have to be made explicit in the Agreement.
“In any event in 1998, if there was, in fact, a possibility of the UK leaving the EU, it would have been the responsibility of the UK to have brought that up in the Good Friday negotiations.
“It did not do so, and, to the best of my knowledge, the Conservative Party official opposition, did not bring it up either.
“If they had done so, it would have been a very different negotiation,” he said.
Mr Johnson’s insistence on non-existent technological solutions to police the Border after Brexit seemed to be “a straightforward attempt by a UK Prime Minister to destroy the EU Single Market.
“He seems to want the EU to legally bind itself not to enforce its own rules at its own borders.
“If neither side enforce their rules, this will create want a ‘no man’s land’ in the vicinity of the Irish border, where no controls or checks would apply.
“This is an open invitation to criminal and subversive organisations, who have financed themselves in the past by smuggling.
“Brexit will create a whole new set of opportunities for smuggling and consequently for the financing of subversive organisations
“Given that one such, smuggling-financed, criminal organisation attempted to murder one of his predecessors as Conservative leader, one would be forgiven for thinking that Boris Johnson has not studied the history of his party closely enough.
“At the moment, the only products where there are big price differences on either side of the border are fuel, alcohol and tobacco. I reckon the losses are as much as £200 million, without Brexit. Imagine what it will be like after a hard Brexit, in the absence of a backstop (and) hundreds of new products where there will be progressively ever greater price differences on either side of the Irish border, due to different rates of tariff and different standards.”
A whole new set of opportunities for smugglers will thus be created, on top of the opportunities they are already exploiting, he said.
To counter these criminals the burden placed on policing services on either side of the border will increase exponentially, and scarce police resources will have to be diverted from dealing with conventional crime, said Mr Bruton.
“For a UK government to go out of its way to create new opportunities for smugglers by insisting, on the basis of some high principle of not having an Irish backstop, is irresponsible. This is a truth that must be stated,” he said.
“In the event of Brexit without a backstop, controls and checks on the goods and services that may cross EU borders will be essential because the UK has said it will to make trade deals, with different rates of tariffs, and/or different quality standards for goods and services to the ones applied by EU.
“The UK has decided it will increasingly diverge from EU environmental, product, and labour standards.
“If it fails to protect its Single Market, the EU will not be able to continue to lead the world in setting higher standards to protect the climate, and to protect the privacy of the data of its citizens.
“That is why the EU cannot allow its nearest neighbour, and recently departed member, to undercut its standards with impunity.
“Ireland must be seen to be fully compliant with EU Single Market rules. Otherwise Ireland’s geographic position will be used against it by competitors for the investment.
“By completing the Single Market, the EU can show that it has much more to offer to the world than a post-Brexit Britain.
“The ‘European Single Market on the Liffey’ can and will deliver more consumer benefits than ‘Singapore on the Thames’,” said Mr Bruton.