by Frank Schnittger
Wed Dec 2nd, 2020 at 12:18:02 PM EST
British readying for Brexit: They never saw it coming, mate
Sometimes our vocabulary has to expand to encompass new realities. Covid, for example, has added "lockdown", "social distancing" and "flattening the curve" to our daily lexicon. Likewise, the UK's departure from the European Union has already given us words such as "Remainers", "Leavers" and "cake-ism" as well as, of course, the word "Brexit" itself. Phrases about "unicorns" and "cherry-picking" have been given a new resonance.
But Brexit, set to take full effect on January 1st, now requires the urgent invention of another word to capture the simple reality that the self-harm inflicted on the British people, across so many areas of their lives, is the direct effect of Brexit itself and of the hard version of it pursued by the Johnson government. Many people, of course, understand this well both in Britain and around Europe. But if this elementary reality has to be explained every time that British tabloids express astonishment at the latest materialisation of the bleeding obvious, we may lose the will to live.
For example, in recent days alone, the British public has been informed, shock horror, that British ski instructors are set to lose their seasonal jobs on the continent, that British owners of second-houses in Europe will only be able to reside there for a limited period every year, and that European spouses of British citizens will no longer have an automatic right to reside in the UK.
Stories like these are merely a tiny tip of the massive Brexit iceberg that is floating in the direction of the British public. Just wait until long lines of traffic are approaching British ports and lengthy queues at European airports are growing tetchy, not to mention the thousand other Brexit "shocks that flesh is heir to".
It would be unfair to our forests to cut down enough trees to explain in response to each and every cry that the sky is falling down that, on a particular day in 2016, a majority of British voters voted for that very sky to fall down; or that, in the UK general election last December, a prime minister who was insouciant about maximising the damage was given a parliamentary majority.
So here is my modest proposal. We should agree on a single word we can use to set the record straight, in jig time, whenever it is implied that the consequences of Brexit are as mysterious as the Third Secret of Fatima or as inexplicable as the changing seasons were to our Neanderthal forebears. The new phenomenon that the word needs to capture is Rejecting All Brexit's Inevitable Effects Syndrome. The acronym may work better: Rabies.
Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to London, Brussels and Rome and now an occasional commentator in the Irish Times. He is too diplomatic and fond of the British to be insulting, but may have stumbled across a new meme.
The British have form here. I have lost count of the number of times I have had it brexplained to me that the British only ever joined a Common Market and that the European Union is a vast political conspiracy foisted upon them by scheming Eurocrats to take away their freedoms. Most seem blissfully unaware that the very first line of the preamble to the founding Treaty of Rome (1958) is "DETERMINED to establish the foundations of an ever closer union among the European peoples", and that all subsequent amendments to that Treaty have been formally approved (and sometimes inspired) by Her Majesty's Government on their behalf.
This is where the limitations of British democracy are perhaps most brutally exposed. In Ireland, any Treaty which alters in any way the provisions of the Irish Constitution must be approved by popular referendum after a prescribed period of public debate. There have been nine such amendments related to the development of the EU including two, on the Nice and Lisbon Treaties, which were only passed in slightly modified form at the second attempt.
There is thus much public awareness of the minutiae of the development of the EU and the pooling of sovereignty this inevitably entails. Debate on the Treaties has often been fractious and divisive, but informed by an independent judicial referendum commission which must by law publish an authoritative guide to precisely what each amendment means and how it will effect Irish people. This means there is much public awareness and ownership of the ongoing evolution of the EU.
In Britain, on the other hand, such Treaties are passed by acts of parliament with often minimal and misinformed public debate. Governments which had championed various Treaty changes in Europe disowned them to their domestic electorate. The British people were treated, instead, to myths about straight bananas and attempts by scheming Eurocrats to ban prawn flavoured crisps.
Another example of Rejecting All Brexit's Inevitable Effects Syndrome (Rabies) is the current attempt, by UK owned and based supermarket chains operating in N. Ireland to obtain a special exemption from Single Market and Customs Union rules governing the importation of foodstuffs, in particular. Quite apart from the fact that such imports may attract tariffs, absent a trade deal, there is also the not insignificant matter of ensuring they conform to EU standards, especially if the UK accepts foreign imports from countries such as the USA which operate to very different standards.
In any case, why should the EU hand a competitive advantage to large UK supermarket chains operating within the Single Market, and allow them to bypass regulations all other retailers in N. Ireland will have to observe?
This has not prevented Newton Emerson, Irish Times columnist and unionist commentator from using his columns to lobby on their behalf. He even seems to believe that President Elect Joe Biden could be supportive of unionism's stance on Brexit, as in: Joe Biden's Brexit remarks show an opportunity for unionism (subscriber only). I have written an unpublished letter to the Editor in response:
A Chara, - Newton Emerson writes that unionists should be reassured that President elect Biden will not "push for difficult change" in Ireland and appears to have "a surprisingly British understanding of Brexit as an issue". (Unionists should declare Ireland is worked out, Biden can keep it that way, Opinion & Analysis, 26th. November).
Your columnist makes much of two phrases in Biden's 70-word comment this week in an unscripted reply to a television reporter and perhaps misinterprets their meaning. Biden's comment, "we've worked too long to get Ireland worked out," is perhaps no more than a reference to all the hard work which went into ending the troubles culminating in the Good Friday Agreement.
Biden's statement "we do not want a guarded Border" may mean no more than reiterating that there is no chance of customs controls being imposed within Ireland. Far from endorsing the unionist supported status quo this means that the border between the EU Single Market and Customs Union and the UK must be "down the Irish sea" - as provided for in the Northern Ireland Protocol of the Withdrawal Agreement.
President elect Biden is therefore unlikely to come to the aid of Northern Ireland Supermarket chains lobbying to be given a special exemption from the food standard and customs controls between Britain and Ireland required by the fact that Britain is moving outside the Single Market and Custom Union areas.
UK backsliding on the Withdrawal Agreement, and particularly on implementing its provisions aimed at preventing a need for a hard border within Ireland, may well draw a fairly fierce response from Washington. Biden may not be appointing "the more aggressive Irish-Americans" to top level positions, but neither does he have any interest in offending them,.
President elect Biden's hostility to Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage for cosying up to Trump is well known. Indeed, for Biden and his team, Boris Johnson is the British Trump, and can expect to be treated with similar deference.
In another TV clip, when asked for a short comment by a reporter shouting "BBC", Biden's response was "I'm Irish". Mr. Emerson may want to ponder on the significance of that casual remark.