The potential for a ‘no-deal’ Brexit escalated on Friday when British MInister, Michael Gove officially informed the European Commission (EC) at a meeting of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, that his government would not seek an extension to the transition period out of the EU, which ends on 1 January 2021.
It’s a reckless policy position, which defies all logic in the midst of the international COVID-19 health emergency, with its attendant social and economic repercussions, and the strong probability of a deep economic recession to follow.
But then, this particular British government has plenty of form in reckless decision making.
Its political authority in dealing with COVID-19 is now threadbare, and overall management of the health emergency has been exposed to have been fundamentally muddled, and quite literally fatally flawed.
Authoritative scientists in Britain are publicly saying that the British failure to introduce a lockdown sooner has cost many lives.
Now the neo-liberal and big capitalist interests which govern the policy approach of this administration are driving forward at pace with an unguarded end to lock down in England, and reopening of the economy.
From the outset of the COVID-19 emergency, the focus of this British government was completely fixated on getting out of Europe.
After ten years of austerity cutbacks which decimated the health and social system, the British Tory government had only prepared to deal with a flu pandemic.
Exiting the European Union (EU) at all costs has been, and remains the consistent Tory default position.
The Irish Protocol was built into the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) between the EU and British government to reflect the unique circumstances of the north of Ireland; the Irish peace process;
Good Friday Agreement (GFA); and the all-island economy.
Importantly the Protocol was also agreed to ensure no return of a hard border in Ireland.
Since the Withdrawal Agreement was signed, the EC has been very clear about unconditional implementation of the Agreement in all its parts.
Not so the British government.
On 30 April a Technical Note was issued by the EC, after the first meeting of the Specialised Committee with responsibility for implementation of the Irish Protocol, which set out the need for urgent progress in key areas. These are non negotiable.
The British government’s overall approach to the negotiations relating to the WA has been heavily criticised by the Scottish, Welsh, and north of Ireland regional governments.
Minimal information has been shared about the scope of the British negotiation strategy, or planning assumptions and operational readiness regarding the post-transition scenario in 2021, despite repeated commitments to the contrary.
The exclusion of the three regional administrations has become a source of contention and divergence with the British government. This has deepened in recent weeks as the EC has pressed for an increased tempo of engagement.
In its Technical Note the EC stated it was willing to approve an extension to the transition period for Britain’s withdrawal, but that the British government needed to indicate a decision on that issue by this month, June. Hence the significance of Friday’s Joint Committee meeting.
The Joint Committee has met only once before. It is meant to oversee the work of the various Specialised Committees, which are to carry out detailed work on withdrawal terms.
One of these committees has a specific responsibility for the Irish Protocol. It only met for the first time on 29 April.
In recent weeks I have twice asked British officials for confirmation of when it will meet again. Still no date has been set. At Friday’s Joint Committee the EC Vice President Maroš Šefčovič raised this failure to set a new date.
He also expressed dissatisfaction at insufficient progress by the British on providing implementation plans and details on many technical issues, including compliance with customs codes, and EU VAT arrangements. The point was made again by the EC Vice President that a large number of technical solutions need to be solved by 1 July.
The EC expressed dismay that the requirement for an EU office in Belfast to handle technical processes on the operation of the Protocol had been turned into a public controversy since the previous Joint Committee arising from the British government’s refusal to allow it to be opened.
Despite the complexity of the trade/import/export issues which remain to be resolved, the British government and NIO has only begun to engage with the local business community on the need to guarantee uninterrupted trade between the north and Britain, on a west/east basis.
So far those discussions have been light touch, and lacking in detail or clarity.
This lack of substance, the British indifference for necessary preparations on implementation of the Protocol, and failure to meaningfully engage with the regional administrations in Scotland, Wales and north of Ireland, all flow directly into the cavalier announcement on Friday that no extension to the transition period will be sought.
There has been no evidence to date that this British government is serious about conducting a proper negotiation with the EC. It has obviously decided that the negotiation will be on its terms only, regardless of the views of Scotland, Wales, north of Ireland, or indeed the EU itself.
Just as the Tories’ approach towards COVID-19 made it an outlier, so too has their approach on EU exit.
More and more, this British government is showing itself to speak for, and to represent, England only.
The Scottish and Welsh administrations have clearly stated they want an extension to the transition period. And despite there being no agreed position within the five-party power sharing coalition government in the north, the majority of parties share the same view.
So while Michelle O’Neill and I represented our regional government at the Joint Committee on Friday, (along with the other Joint Head of Government, Arlene Foster, and her Junior Minister), Michelle put on record with the EC that even though no consensus exists in the local administration on transition, Sinn Féin completely dissociated itself from the British announcement, and echoed the EC’s statement that there must be unconditional implementation of the Irish Protocol.
The announcement by the British government was high handed and stupid. It was based on no other strategic consideration than to make it clear Britain is not beholden to any other authority.
No section of the business community in the north of Ireland can have any confidence that their interests are being properly taken into account, or represented by the British government.
However this cause for concern extends to many other areas also.
Again in recent weeks I have asked British officials to provide detailed reassurance on continued EU funding for the north of Ireland, or else a guarantee their government will replace the net financial loss by the British treasury. That has not been forthcoming.
A twice requested trilateral meeting to discuss a proper strategic approach to negotiating Peace Plus, with our regional government and the Irish government has not been convened.
There is absolutely no clarity about British intentions.
And none of this stalling is happening by accident.
Diplomatic pretence aside, British government policy is governed solely by populist, ‘little Englander’ considerations. The needs of Scotland, Wales or north of Ireland are not in the reckoning.
The long and short is that Brexit is a Tory wrecking ball.
But with that comes unintended consequences.
Brexit is beginning to reset the political discourse in Europe, about relations with Britain, and between Ireland and Britain.
Earlier this week Sinn Féin President Mary Lou Mc Donald TD and I briefed 50 Dublin-based ambassadors and diplomats, many of them from EU states.
Britain’s withdrawal from the EU was a central theme of discussion; so too was Irish unity.
We pointed out that Brexit and now COVID-19 have had a profound effect upon Irish politics and society.
One of the unintended consequences has been to accelerate a popular civic discussion in Ireland both north and south, about constitutional and social change, and Irish unity.
The EU has invested heavily in the Irish peace process. It has shown important solidarity since the Brexit referendum in June 2016.
During our briefing with the diplomatic corps I referred to the role the EU played in the reunification of Germany 30 years ago.
The discussion on Irish unity is not going away.
Ever growing sections of political and civic opinion in Ireland and internationally are recognising that reunification is not only reasonable but also achievable.
Uniting Ireland is a democratic solution which can provide a new, strategic way forward for Irish society.
As Britain continues to default on its obligations under the WA, and hurtle towards a potential ‘no-deal’ exit from the EU, the economic and societal logic for Irish unity becomes even more urgent.
The negative approach of this British government makes the intensification of that discussion increasingly unavoidable in Ireland and within the international community. Planning for a unity referendum is an inevitable part of such a process.
As talks on government formation in Dublin nudge forward, the next Irish government will have to positively engage with this reality.
With the clock ticking down to the end of Britain’s transition period from the EU, the new economic and social opportunities, and potential of Irish unity, need to be developed into practical political and diplomatic strategies in both Ireland and Europe.