This week’s focus on the Irish backstop has revealed all its hypocrisies – to the shame of the political class – throughout Europe.
On Tuesday, the Prime Minister (Theresa May) announced that she would vote to amend the “backstop” (the indefinite inclusion of Northern Ireland in the EU) – which she had previously described as an essential part of the best deal on the table. Moreover, she urged her fellow Members of Parliament to vote against the backstop so that she could renegotiate it with the EU – having said many times that her draft Withdrawal Agreement could not be renegotiated. She had added, in those times, that any insistence on renegotiation would cause delay – but she wasted two-and-a-half months before seeking renegotiation (since publishing her draft Withdrawal Agreement on 14 November). She has only two months to renegotiate anything before Britain leaves the EU under current legislation (or about one month, if she remains beholden to other legislation compelling her to consult Parliament first).
The opposition is no less hypocritical. The Labour Party’s leader (Jeremy Corbyn) opposed her Chequers proposal and draft Withdrawal Agreement, even though they would deliver most of what he wants: a transition period, followed by a customs union for goods. (Belatedly, he talks airily about a “true” customs union, which implies inclusion of services, although he is never specific or consistent.)
The Labour Party was united in defeating the draft Withdrawal Agreement on 15 January, but has fallen out over whether to delay Brexit beyond March, or rescind Britain’s request to withdraw under Article 50, or hold a second referendum (“people’s vote”). Corbyn, as ever, treads a hypocritical balancing act. On Tuesday, members of his shadow cabinet helped to defeat a Labour backbench motion to delay Brexit – probably, he secretly permitted them.
Corbyn likes to claim that May’s flip-flopping is due to her prioritization of Conservative unity over the national interest, but Corbyn is just as indecisive, procrastinating, and non-committal, for the same character flaws, and for the same insecurities of leadership. Both leaders tend to leave decisions to the last minute to give less time for internal resistance.
The EU too is hypocritical about internal divisions. The EU claims that the draft Withdrawal Agreement was ratified by all member states, but EU ratifications are centralized pantomimes that under-represent national differences. The Polish premier now openly calls for the EU to give Britain a better deal, joining Hungarian and Italian executives, whose influence the EU curbed in 2018, because they acted too independently.
Jean-Claude Juncker (European Commission President) insists that “The Withdrawal Agreement remains the best and only deal possible.” His proposition itself is impossible. When is a deal ever best? For whom is a deal best? Deals are inherently compromises. The EU’s self-centred and punitive strategy has come back to haunt it – it negotiated such a bad deal for Britain, with a weak and compliant Prime Minister, that Parliament won’t pass it. The current impasse is the EU’s own fault.
This gets us back to a longer-standing hypocrisy: the continental elite denied the resistance they were stimulating in Britons, while they caricatured Britons as ignorant self-harmers. Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron said again that Britons would be the biggest losers of Brexit, but continental discourse simply ignores British gains. On Monday, the EU’s deputy chief negotiator (Sabine Weyand, deputy to Michel Barnier) warned the British of “a very high risk of a crash-out, not by design, but by accident”. Shouldn’t she be warning the EU? (The BBC reported this statement reverently as a rare intervention that proved how serious the risk had become.) On Wednesday, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit spokesman (Guy Verhofstadt) told his colleagues that British party leaders “must do more than eating biscuits and drinking tea” – as if the impasse is a British cultural problem. Nothing could better illustrate the unadmitted prejudices inherent to European federalist culture.
The articulate classes whine about Britain having been captured by nationalists, racists, and imperialists, while betraying their own bigotry. The leading French newspaper (Le Monde) constantly editorializes with the hypocrisy that Britain is an unstable, divided country (err, yellow vests anyone?). This week, it invited historians to editorialize Britain as disgustingly xenophobic and useless, but also a country that is essential to the EU. This week, I publicly debated with a German academic who said he doesn’t understand why Britons would want to leave, when Germans need Britain’s nuclear deterrent and commercial and financial contributions.
The Irish government has been exploiting the Northern Irish border for national advantage, while claiming to be the only cooperative player in the British Isles.
The EU’s justifications for keeping that border within the EU are themselves hypocritical. Ireland and the EU pretend that any interruption to free trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would ruin Ireland and thence the EU, but what about Britain’s land border with France at Calais? (Yes, it is at Calais, not Dover.)
Last week, Michel Barnier repeated his commitment to avoiding a “hard border,” but also said that a hard border is inevitable in the event of no-deal Brexit, while the Irish government said that it would never happen. This leads to the hypocrisy: Why does the EU refuse to rule out removing the backstop, even if a hard border wouldn’t happen? The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) has pointed out this hypocrisy, but Theresa May’s administration (the DUP’s effective coalition partner in Parliament) has not.
Meanwhile, the EU worries that if Northern Ireland doesn’t stay inside the EU, then British access to non-EU trade would allow British imports from outside the EU to cross the open border from Northern Ireland without EU customs. So, the EU should want a hard border! (Philippe Lamberts, a member of the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, betrayed this hypocrisy, in English, during an interview with Channel 4 News on Wednesday, without any journalist pointing out the hypocrisy.)
Overall, we are seeing more of the hypocrisy that dominated discourse during Britain’s referendum in June 2016. The EU keeps insisting it’s fine: more competent at governance than any member state could hope to be, wealthier than the aggregate could be (despite the colossal inefficiencies and expenses of supra-state governance), more environmentally conscious, more peaceful, more stable.
Yet the EU zone is in economically dire straits. Britain’s economy is booming, exports have grown, manufacturing has expanded, and employment has risen to levels most EU members can only dream of. Italy is in recession, France and German have barely avoided technical recession. Yet the EU begs Britain not to leave, for the economic benefits, while it hypocritically worries that no-deal Brexit could push the whole EU into recession. And the EU wants 39 billion pounds sterling from Britain as an exit payment just to keep the EU’s government solvent.
Moreover, the EU is in denial about popular instability (yellow jackets anyone?) and national resistance (Italy, Hungary, and Poland are effectively aligned against a Franco-German axis that just signed a bilateral commitment to ever closer integration).
Back in June 2016, “Project Fear” ironically opened British eyes to the hypocrisies at the heart of the EU. This week’s hypocrisies over the Brexit backstop further expose a political class enervated by EU membership.