What is the British prime minister hoping to achieve by torpedoing the EU Withdrawal Agreement? Barbara Wesel asks: Is he after a no-deal Brexit, or just bluffing for a better trade deal?
You can't break international law "in a very specific and limited way" any more than you can be pregnant in a limited and specific way. But that was exactly how the UK's Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis rather shamelessly described plans to draft legislation in direct violation of the terms of the EU Withdrawal Agreement in the British House of Commons. It was either a case of impudence or ignorance — likely the latter.
Everything that could be said about the quality of most of Prime Minister Boris Johnson's Cabinet has. He deliberately surrounded himself with inexperienced yes-men of dubious intellectual prowess, simply because they are easy to control. In the case of Health Minister Matt Hancock, under his watch the UK has the third-highest coronvirus death rate in Europe in gross terms. With the possible exception of the clever and ambitious Michael Gove, Johnson has scraped the bottom of the political barrel for the rest of his team.
The most recent evidence of this obsequiousness is the fact that no one dare call the prime minister's chaotic new Brexit strategy into question. As Johnson's proposed internal market bill is a blatant breach of law, and ministers are bound by oath of office to uphold the law, you would think they would feel obliged to vote against it. You would think.
But the prime minister himself showed what he thought about rule of law last year, when he unlawfully prorogued Parliament, sending MPs home during Brexit negotiations — until the courts ordered their return. For Johnson and his diabolic, populist strategy bod Dominic Cummings, such rules are simply annoying impediments; the sooner you can break the shackles, the more freely you can operate.
With that attitude, the dark predictions put forth by veteran Conservatives like former Prime Minister John Major, who warned the UK is in danger of losing the trust of international partners, are more likely to inspire Johnson than give him pause. Lawless autocrats and rogue states don't have to respect anyone; they can exert control over friend and foe alike — if these allow it. And isn't that exactly what he promised with Brexit anyhow?
The British themselves look on in astonishment as the prime minister apes Donald Trump's populist playbook. The institutional safeguards of the so-called "mother of parliaments" appear rickety, and the body's centuries-old traditions are crashing down like a house of cards with real opposition nowhere in sight. Johnson is stirring up as much political chaos as possible in an attempt to bury news of his abject coronavirus performance and cement his grip on power.
That is the frame in which the smaller drama over the Brexit agreement is playing out. The Europeans are refusing to let themselves be provoked. Rather than throw down the gauntlet, they have instead issued an ultimatum and threatened to take legal action should the disputed UK law be passed. And of course, there can be no trade agreement if the UK does not uphold its end of the Northern Ireland protocol [the part of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement covering Northern Ireland's status, which replaced the renowned "backstop" at the last minute in the 2019 negotiations — editor's note].
The fact that Johnson is using the sensitive issue of Northern Ireland to torch the EU Withdrawal Agreement is proof once again of his political instability. The consequences his actions could have for peace in the region seem of little interest to the prime minister so long as Brexit hardliners in his party are content. That is wrecking-ball politics.
But what does Johnson really want? To sink trade talks and then blame the EU? Is he really aiming for a no-deal Brexit? Or is he just trying to make the EU nervous in hopes of securing a better deal? Observers of Downing Street say either scenario is possible — and betters are delighted.
Every time Boris Johnson speaks of "friends and partners" in Europe it triggers a gag reflex. The hypocrisy is too much to take. But now he has shown that he doesn't want any relationship with the EU at all — no more friendship, not even one that is purely businesslike. He is destroying every last bit of trust and acting as if it is nothing at all.
Someone like Donald Trump can afford to do that, the US is a world power. But when the prime minister of a mid-sized country on the outskirts of Europe does it, it smacks of megalomania. With whom will he ally or do business with? How is the UK supposed to survive a hard Brexit if the EU really turns the screws in a trade dispute? Even those who know Johnson have no answer to those questions.
But for those who once loved and admired Britain, the country is simply no longer recognizable. The British have indeed departed us, and in ways that are much more fundamental than Brexit.
Adapted from German by Jon Shelton.