Who will blink first in the game of brinkmanship that will see talks on the United Kingdom getting a Brexit deal with the European Union going to the wire?

Confused about why the UK and EU are still wrangling over a Brexit deal to take us beyond the much trumpeted Withdrawal Agreement and the one-year transition period which expires on 31 December 2020?

You’re not alone!

Four years after the UK referendum to leave the European Union saw 52:48 percent vote in favour of Brexit, experts are still baffled by the latest twists and turns in negotiations between the two sides.

I cling to the hope that a rabbit can still be pulled out of the magic hat and that British premier Boris Johnson will do one of his famous U-turns and agree a last minute “skinny” deal with the European Commission to allow trade without tariffs with our nearest, if not dearest, neighbours. Some kind of deal that can be built on in the future to cover areas that I normally write about, like developing cooperation between UK and European scientists and encouraging student exchanges between the UK and EU countries.

Specific and limited law breaking 

But boy are they making hard work out of it, with the Northern Ireland minister Brandon Lewis forced to admit to the House of Commons that the UK government was proposing to “break international law” but in a “very specific and limited way” in its Internal Market Bill working its way through Parliament.

This has already led to law officers resigning; a threatened mini rebellion on the Conservative benches and widespread condemnation – with all five previous living Prime Ministers speaking against the move.

The BBC and others reported a partial climbdown as I was writing this blog; but that seems to simply give the Prime Minister cover by letting MPs have a vote before Johnson breaks international law. 

As he has a stonking majority, thanks to his Brexit promises, and the support of the Northern Irish Unionist MPs in the latest drama, he probably knows he has the numbers to win and give a nod to democratic accountability.

Trust has been broken

But “trust” has been broken. And for anyone who has studied economics and politics, trust is one of your most important assets.

The latest flashpoint is over the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the Withdrawal Agreement which Boris Johnson signed with the European Union soon after his “Get Brexit Done” general election victory at the end of last year.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson
Image PoliticsHome

And depending on who you believe this could either be a last-ditch attempt by out-and-out Brexiteers to completely derail any prospect of the UK securing a deal with the EU or Boris Johnson failing to fully understand what he was signing up in his much-trumpeted Withdrawal Agreement and now trying to wriggle out of his international commitments.

Labour’s Ed Miliband produced a barn-storming demolition of Johnson’s position in the House of Commons on 15 September, to which the Prime Minister had no reply. Watch and be amazed on YouTube

At stake in the protocol is an arrangement designed to prevent a commercial border being created between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (part of the EU) at the end of Brexit transition period on 31 December 2020. This means applying the same EU single market-market rules on both sides of the Irish border which since the Good Friday peace agreement has enabled friction-free trade between the North and the Republic of Ireland.

But unless a trade deal between the UK and EU can be stitched together in the remaining few weeks of 2020, many Northern Irish imports and exports from the rest of the UK could potentially be subject to tariffs and regulatory checks. 

A border down the Irish Sea?

This has already led to a surreal twitter exchange between the UK’s senior Brexit negotiator @DavidGHFrost and his EU counterpart, @MichelBarnier, which is worth digging out.

Some see this creating a hard border, not between the UK and the EU, but down the middle of the North Sea between the British mainland and Northern Ireland. Hence the admission from the Northern Ireland minister that the UK might try to avoid this happening by breaking a “very specific” part of its international treaty with the EU.

It has also seen European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen do the seemingly impossible and quote the words of former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher back at the Johnson government. In 1975, Thatcher said: “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future treaty on trade.”

Trying to make sense of it

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

To try to make sense of it all, UK in a Changing Europe held an Isolation Insight briefing on Zoom on 16 September, titled ‘Brexit: six months of stalemate’, with a top team of experts. They included the BBC’s Europe Editor Katya Adler; Bruno Waterfield from The Times; former European Commission Ambassador to the United State David O’Sullivan and Anand Menon and Jill Rutter from UK in a Changing Europe. It is well worth watching.

It was a useful reminder that while Brexit often dominates the UK headlines when the coronavirus crisis allows space for any other news, countries remaining in the European Commission have more urgent priorities such as economic recovery from COVID-19 and the migration crisis on the continent’s south-eastern flank.

O’Sullivan, a former Irish civil servant, said: “Nobody understands except in terms of domestic politics why we are suddenly having this row over the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol. None of this makes sense! The accusation of a food blockade is completely without foundation.”

Towards the end of the webinar, O’Sullivan summed up, by saying: “What I worry about is that it seems for the Brexiteers leaving is not sufficient. There has to be a constant denigration of the EU, constantly bringing the EU back to the front pages of the British papers as the enemy and the big threat to Britain. A threat when Britain was part of it and now that Britain is no part of it. 

Why is the UK so obsessed with the EU?

“This worries me because I would have thought that one of the benefits of Brexit – and there are not many of them – is that we can stop having this constant battle about bad the EU is, how evil it is, and how it threatens blockades and all that. 

Former European Commission Ambassador to the US David O’Sullivan

“That’s not gone unnoticed around continental Europe where people are saying ‘why are they so obsessed with the EU? They’ve left for goodness sake’. 

“We need to get to a point where the UK gets on with its own life and lets the EU gets on with its own life and where we are good neighbours and find a way to work together and share the same European space for the next ten to 15 years and see where we get to.”

Wise words in my humble opinion, but then perhaps Brexit and having the EU as the bogeyman is the only thing holding the Conservatives together after the disastrous first nine months of the Boris Johnson government.

But I still hope that sense may prevail and that the UK government can follow David O’Sullivan’s advice and find a way to achieve peaceful coexistence with “our friends and partners in Europe” to quote Boris Johnson’s words back at him!

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