Johnson faces mounting EU resistance to his Brexit deal
A Tory transformation into a party of retro British nationalism could turn nasty, writes Joyce Mcmillan
Boris Johnson’s hopes of breaking the Brexit deadlock over the Irish border have been dealt a serious blow after they were rejected by an influential committee of European parliamentarians, who said the proposal to replace the controversial Irish border backstop do not come “even remotely” close to a compromise, and cannot get the support of MEPS.
Boris Johnson’s hopes of breaking the Brexit deadlock over the Irish border have been dealt a serious blow after they were rejected by an influential committee of European parliamentarians.
The Brexit Supervisory Group (BSG) of the European Parliament said the proposal to replace the controversial Irish border backstop do not come “even remotely” close to a compromise, and cannot get the support of MEPS.
The European Council President Donald Tusk also added his voice to the cool reception for the plan in Brussels yesterday, saying after a conversation with Mr Johnson that “we remain open but still unconvinced”.
And the Irish government hardened its language on the proposals, with Premier Leo Varadkar saying the Brexit plan “falls short in a number of aspects”.
Addressing MPS for the first time since presenting his plan to Brussels, Mr Johnson struck a more conciliatory tone than in recent weeks, saying he has made a “genuine attempt to bridge the chasm” with the EU.
He declined several times to repeat a warning in his Conservative Party conference speech that the government had made its “final offer”.
But the Prime Minister acknowledged in his statement a day after he shared his proposals with Brussels that they are “some way from a resolution”.
Mr Johnson urged MPS to “come together in the national interest behind this new deal”, but first he must get it passed by the EU, with reactions from European leaders so far being cool.
“This Government’s objective has always been to leave with a deal and these constructive and reasonable proposals show our seriousness of purpose,” the Prime Minister said.
“They do not deliver everything that we would’ve wished, they do represent a compromise, but to remain a prisoner of existing positions is to become a cause of deadlock rather than breakthrough.”
Jeremy Corbyn responded by saying no Labour MP could support the “reckless deal”, which he said would jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement.
They were also criticised by the only Northern Irish MP in the Commons to hear the statement, the independent Unionist Lady Hermon, who claimed Mr Johnson “doesn’t understand Northern Ireland”.
The SNP’S Westminster leader Ian Blackford claimed Scotland will “never consent” to Brexit, and called Mr Johnson’s proposals “unacceptable, unworkable, undeliverable and designed to fail”.
In a blow to hopes of a deal, the proposal to replace the backstop was rejected by a committee made up of experts and senior members of the party groups in the European Parliament, which must approve any Brexit deal.
The group chaired by the MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt said in a statement that the “last-minute proposals” cannot be backed by the EU Parliament “in their current form”.
“The UK proposals do not match even remotely what was agreed as a sufficient compromise in the backstop,” the group said.
They were particularly critical of Mr Johnson’s proposals to replace the Irish backstop by keeping Northern Ireland tied to single market rules for trade in goods, while leaving the customs union.
The MEPS said the proposals could jeopardise the Good Friday peace agreement and the integrity of the single market. They concluded: “The BSG has grave concerns about the UK proposal, as tabled.”
EU Commission President Jean-claude Juncker spoke with Mr Varadkar by phone last night and expressed “unwavering support for Ireland”. A Commission statement added that “further discussions with the United Kingdom negotiators are needed”.
Speaking on a visit to Stockholm alongside the Swedish Prime Minister, who also reaffirmed the EU’S solidarity with Ireland, Mr Varadkar said he could not fully understand how the UK envisages Northern Ireland and Ireland operating under different customs regimes without the need for customs posts.
“It’s very much the view of the Irish government and the people of Ireland, north and south, that there shouldn’t be customs checkpoints or tariffs between north and south,” he said.
Meanwhile, his deputy Simon Coveney told the Irish parliament that “if that is the final proposal, there will be no deal”.
Mr Coveney raised concerns about the plan to give Stormont a veto on the plan because its voting structures mean a bloc of MLAS from either the nationalist or unionist community - which includes Mr Johnson’s DUP allies - can block certain decisions, even if a majority of members back them.
“We cannot support any proposal that suggests that one party or indeed a minority in Northern Ireland could make the decision for the majority in terms of how these proposals would be implemented in the future,” he said.
DUP leader Arlene Foster responded by accusing the Irish government of an attack on Unionism.
“Scotland will never consent to Brexit. The proposals are unworkable, unacceptable , undeliverable and designed to fail”
Wednesday morning; and in Manchester, the Prime Minister is making his speech to the Conservative Party conference. Despite his inflated reputation as a wit, Boris Johnson is not a great public speaker, and the response from the faithful seems more warmly supportive than ecstatic. As the speech finishes, though – with much emphasis from most commentators on the new Brexit proposals – the eye is caught by a tweet from political journalist Robert Peston. He gives a brief summary of Johnson’s non-brexit policy proposals, and then adds, “That was Boris Johnson saying ‘I hate being called an extreme rightwing ideologue’”.
It was a surprising phrase; for if there is one thing about which this Prime Minister can feel confident, it is surely that no-one has ever mistaken him for an ideologue, of any stripe. On the contrary, he has made it crystal clear – particularly with his theatrical decision about which column to file, Remain or Leave, on the eve of the EU referendum campaign – that he is the complete political opportunist, ready to climb into bed with anyone at all, in order to keep his chubby fist crammed into the big sweetie jar of political fame and recognition that seems so necessary to his emotional equilibrium. And in that sense, his status as the current leader of the Conservative Party seems oddly appropriate; for if every detail of the Labour Party’s post-2010 transition from Blairism back to 1945-style social democracy has been subjected to near-hysterical levels of media scrutiny, the Conservative Party has also been undergoing a remarkable transition over the last three years, and one which, beyond its obvious impact on Brexit policy, has been rather less well reported.
It has been widely observed, of course, that the party’s effort to destroy Ukip, in the early 2010s, led to it becoming much more like Ukip; by 2015, Tory MPS and party members were far more likely to be extreme Eurosceptics than in 2010. What has tended to escape notice, though, is that so far as British Conservatism is concerned, the discourse of anti-eu British nationalism has, over the past three years, all but replaced the discourse of economic neoliberalism as the party’s main rallying-cry and raison d’etre. It’s not that there are no radical free-marketeers left in the party; on the contrary, many of the most devout supporters of Brexit are also those who want to see EU protections for everything from workers’ rights to the environment swept away, and great British public goods like the NHS opened up to global providers.
Yet search the party’s recent public rhetoric for any high-profile embrace of these policies, and you will largely search in vain. Instead, as Peston observed on Wednesday, the public tone is increasingly strongly patriotic, implicitly statist, and almost Gaullist in its attachment to grand government-driven projects that supposedly express the spirit of the nation, and offer the people the glory and security they deserve. Hence Johnson’s wish-list of domestic policies for a UK where incomes for the poorest are levelling up, where education, technology and infrastructure are booming thanks to massive government investment, and where the country leads the world in green technology. It’s all pretty vague, of course; but when he gets going, in this ‘one nation’ vein, Boris Johnson sounds surprisingly like a slapdash version of Labour’s John Mcdonnell – who just has not bothered fully to cost his policies, or to analyse their real implications.
And beyond this sudden abandonment of the small-state rhetoric that has sustained the party for 40 years, there is one other consequence of the recent Tory transformation of which every Scot should take note; that after 20 years of blissful Westminster indifference to the entire radical fact of devolution, the Conservative and Unionist Party has suddenly, in its new British nationalist mood, fully noticed the existence of the Scottish Parliament and Government, and begun to take exception to it. Hence the new Tory obsession not only with undermining the Scotland Act so as to be able to retain powers in devolved areas at Westminster, but also with plastering Union flags and advertisements around Scotland, keeping Nicola Sturgeon – as Johnson charmingly put it – from getting “anywhere near” next year’s global environmental summit in Glasgow, and, in the words of one infant Tory, lamenting the strategic error of “giving Edinburgh Castle to the Scottish Government” – although in fact the Castle is mainly used by the army, and always flies a large Union flag, day and night.
The signs, in other words, are that before this Tory transformation into a party of retro British nationalism has run its course, things could turn quite nasty, for those of us who are interested in the diversity of these islands, and in the need to cherish and respect those cultural and political differences. The current fashion, it seems – in Washington, London, Madrid and elsewhere – is for old-style big-state nationalism based on old-style lies about national unity and homogeneity, with all the attendant risk of increasingly bitter hardline responses from those excluded and marginalised by those lies. This is the process of deterioration so much feared by the majority in Northern Ireland, as this new wave of British nationalism lays waste to the necessary complexities of the Good Friday Agreement; and it is a process which will also have consequences for Scotland, and for the quality of our own political life.
Since Boris Johnson is not a ideologue, though, he will not be giving deep consideration to any of this, this weekend. If he were, some of the profound contradictions in his situation might bother him more – not least the fact that he is promising state largesse while driving the country towards a huge and debilitating economic crisis, and being backed by some of the most powerful anti-state ideologues on the planet. And if the consequences of his policies for many of the rest of us hardly bear thinking about... well, as we have seen, deep thought is not Boris Johnson’s strong suit; a fact that is probably as good for his own emotional health, at the moment, as it is dangerous for the country he now claims to lead.
0 Prime Minister Boris Johnson in Downing Street yesterday
0 Donald Tusk says the EU is ‘open but unconvinced’
Boris Johnson urged MPS to ‘come together in the national interest behind this new deal’ with politicians in Brussels and Dublin saying his proposal ‘falls short in a number of aspects’
0 Boris Johnson, with girlfriend Carrie Symonds, is applauded after his speech to the Tory party conference