Bordering On The Ludicrous
“We’ve got them right where they want us” the plaintive cry of the overconfident yet unprepared rings out over Whitehall. The constitutional crisis deepens, and not the milquetoast Scotch one: an egg thrown, harsh words bandied on social media. One where ‘a pike in the thatch’ is a metaphor, but only just.
As surprises go, the Barnier draft can only be a surprise to those who desperately wished it to be. The UK Government, to get itself out of a hole previously, agreed a fallback to regulatory convergence as a back stop in the Phase 1 talks, and here it is, in a box, with a ribbon. Its cousins, Gibraltar and maybe even the sovereign bases in Cyprus, hover in the wings.
On the domestic front things are not going well. The Welsh and Scottish governments have executed a neat pincer movement with twin continuity bills. The constitutional crisis, long believed to be an affair of the extremities continues its long march to the centre – a Westminster roiled with English nationalism and unable to reason about it.
Twitter, and all the temptations of 24-hour insta-reaction, would draw us into the delicious details: Alexander ‘The Piffle’ Johnson’s ludicrous congestion charge analogy, the howls of annexation, but let us step back and look at the long picture.
Brexit takes place in two distinct contexts. There are the European institutions – a club of states – that doesn’t peer into its members’ hearts, cares not for Catalonia, or Scotland, or Corsica or Armagh nor their content nor discontent.
Then there are the states who do care, Ireland for the North, Italy for the Süd Tyrol and Trieste, the German League of Expellees for Pomerania, the France, once, for the Saarland.
The history of Europe in the 20th Century is the history of double-minorities: Brits in Ireland, Irish in Northern Ireland, Swedes in Finland, Finns in the Åland Islands.
The collapse of Empires in 1916-1918 threw off nations like sparks. We date the wars tidily, 1914-1918, 1939-1945 but they were never like that. Fighting continued in Ireland, North and South, that is in the UK and in the Republic-to-be well into the 20s, as it did in Finland, and Poland.
There different wars, east with first the Soviets and then internally with the Ukrainians, and in the west with the Germans. And so it went on, Hitler was 13 years dead and there was still fighting in Ukraine.
The organising principles of modern Europe were forged in this long, tidal war with its great crashing waves, and its long ebb and flow of violence.
For a while the great hope was that class would transcend all, the workers united and so on, but that was mortally wounded at the Miracle of the Vistula when the Polish workers turned out to be Poles and the Red Army was thrashed.
The old Empires, where people of many different ethnicities co-existed under their particular Czar, Caesar, Kaiser or Imperator, were replaced with states where ethnic identity was fused with state power – and the result was overwhelmingly disastrous.
The victorious Allies in 1918 broke up the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires and imposed the Minorities Treaty on the successor states – guaranteeing the rights of national minorities – guarantees which were most not honoured in the 1930s.
As Europe struggled back to life after the second great wave of war, the east in Stalin’s grip, the west in ruins and impoverished Europeans, at the insistent command of Winston Churchill, sought new institutional mechanisms that would enable the continent to be rebuilt.
The birth of the new European institutions reflected that same split view we see now. As France sat down with Germany and the Low Countries to flesh out the details of the European Coal and Steel Community, the first brick in what is now the EU, the French were still the political power in the Saarland which they hoped to annex to France from Germany.
The Europe we know has emerged from a long period of trial and error but at its heart are states, mostly national, and between them is a weak co-ordinating layer – if the European Union is an Empire it is a Holy Roman Empire, fractious, weak and without a strong centre – a million miles from the 4th Reich or the British Empire of yore.
These states are slowly uncoupling themselves from their ethnic bases. Gradually the religious infrastructure – of citizens to pay tithes in Norway, for the strict religious tests of 1688 to be applied to the British monarchs, of the leading role of the Catholic Church in Ireland – is being dismantled. And uniform citizens rights are being applied across the continent – rights that enable individuals to exercise their national rights – to speak the languages they want to, and to be educated in their mother tongues, whether in or out of their home states. The long switch from ethnic to civic nationalism that we have been wrestling with in Scotland these many years.
All across Europe these changes are causing tensions – the pull of ethnic states remains strong, the fear of the other, the unknown can be stoked. But the great mono-ethnic states of the 1950s were the product of ethnic cleansing – and that is not coming back. Europe is and will be a macédoine, a fruit salad, again.
The British reaction to these developments isn’t unusual but the particular form of it is – and we are seeing that in the Irish question most strongly.
Our history as a victor, or at least being on the winning side, in both the main phases of the 20th centuries long European wars means that many of these lessons are unlearnt in our political tradition. Ireland is not seen as just another successor state of 1918 because the UK is not seen as just another empire that collapsed. The myth that we graciously dissolved the Empire persists.
In the 1920s the UK refused the idea that the Minorities Treaties should apply here – and so the collapse of the Northern Ireland government over the issue of an Irish Language Act is treated as some special event – instead of a ghostly throwback to a hundred years ago – fighting old wars.
And critically the British constitution has remained archaic and unexamined. For all my adult life there has been continuous change at the periphery, new parliaments, old ones in Ireland collapsing. But the pretence has always been that the centre is unchanged, unaffected.
This refusal to take responsibility is a major part of the problem – if the UK is a beacon of tolerance, loved across the world, then the local British nationalists in Northern Ireland can’t really be British – it was not an unnoble sentiment back in the killing years – but there are practical consequences – the North is British. But 40 years of No Good Briton mastering Irish politics has its consequences.
In that world the Good Friday Agreement could be seen as just another regional adjustment to one of the broken peripheries, instead of what it was supposed to be: the final bookend on 100 years of unresolved history.
The fact that the UK-Irish border was the last border in the EU to be recognised by both parties is a non-fact, not even forgotten, or unthought, but unthinkable. The UK didn’t split, there weren’t successor states, we won in 1918. Nothing happened to us.
Until 20 years ago the Irish constitution laid claim to the north, the 4th green field. The weather reports on RTÉ religiously included the North. The state published phone books for it, all numbers in the North having a local area code and charged as local not international calls. The Good Friday Agreements saw the abolition of Clauses 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution and the dropping of that claim. It is not just a peace treaty between the Provies and the UVies, a way of ending the modern troubles, but also the final end to the war of 1916-1922, between John Bull and his other island.
All the Brexiteers howling about ‘annexation’; well if you tear down the Good Friday Agreement under it is, can only be ‘one Ireland, united and free’. What did you expect? Camden and Westminster? The European Union is not bothered, but Ireland is, and will fight for the Irish of the North – and the EU will back the club member over the outsider, here and in Gibraltar.
It is not just Brexiteer Ultras and Faragists exhuming parliamentary sovereignty or autarchic notions of the sovereign state though. One of the recurring sub-texts of Brexit has been the demand to substitute multi-lateral 28-way agreements with bilateral ones.
The jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice is intolerable, but a new court where the UK and the EU would equal partners would be acceptable.
The Customs Union of 28 is tyranny, but a Customs Union, a freely entered agreement between the UK and the EU, well that is surely the answer. Corbyn’s team punt this nonsense as freely as their oppos on the government benches.
But the UK isn’t a peer of the EU, its just another one of the 28, smaller than Germany, eaksie-peaksie with France, bigger than Italy, Spain and Poland.
The psychic affront of this is part of what is driving the UK political classes spavined response to events. How dare Johnny Foreigner treat us like this, us!
The UK is also suffering the consequences from fighting a political war that is at least partly imaginary. The EU is not a tyranny nor an occupier, it won’t give us the ‘respect’ that we are not due because our economy is not strong enough to demand it. The strength of our negotiating position is in proportional to our size relative to the whole EU – we are out-gunned by a factor of 5. Every threat we issue comes back on us five times.
The war with the EU also has that phantasmical quality that only comes with unmoored political struggles: the Europeans are simultaneously conniving and stupid, their policies are broken and doomed yet strangling. We must be free of Europe if we are to export as much as Germany. It is about to collapse, this gripping tyranny. They are militarily weak and their European Army is a threat, its a Hitlerian project we defeated in ’45. The EU is trying to annex Northern Ireland, without an army or invasion, using only our consent and an agreement we signed up to already. The EUSSR, which has neither police nor prisons nor soldiers, holds us in its voracious grasp.
The sturm und drang of the draft treaty is the British political class at war with itself and its fantasies as the EU holds up the mirror of reality and we recoil from it.
But the Ireland we are in negotiations with is not from Father Ted, it is a modern European state with a strong sense of its position and a sophisticated political class.
Warren Buffet once quipped “when the tide turns we get to see who’s been swimming without a costume” well we’re in the scud. Time and again the May Government made boastful claims, the battle of the summer over time and phases, the Phase 1 agreement. And time and again we have collapsed and conceded in the face of the European Union’s grinding process. And it has to be a grinding process because how else can you get 27 countries to agree? We declare again that there is a split between the national governments and the EU institutions, and this round it will open, but open it does not.
The Tories and Labour Party are split, the government kicks the can down the road. The May Government of February is ever at war with the traitors of December 2017 who signed up to the backstop of ‘no regulatory divergence on the island of Ireland’.
And at every turn we have them right where they want us, on the timing, on Phase 1, and now on Phase 2. The one card the UK has is the walk out – the no deal. The nuclear card that remains unplayed. We have a lonely ace but they have a fistful.
But how playable is this card? Would a governing party survive playing it? Europe is a big diffuse issue – but when it goes wrong there will be one thing that captures it, that embodies it, that crystallizes it. That will be flights. A hard crash from the EU is a hard crash from Open Skies and a return to the Warsaw Convention – point to point flights. And with that cheap flights, Ryanair, EasyJet, regional airports, stag nights in Kraków, hen nights in Prague go up the Swanee.
It is hard to see how England cannot leave the EU, having voted for it so decisively, but it is also hard to see how the whole UK does, as one. Scotland and Wales are not yet the enemy, the saboteurs, the traitors, but as the temperature rises at Westminster, in its impotence and rage, the threat of that rises. The Phase 1 wave crashes now, but the EU Continuity Bills roll in to the shore, to what boiling spume? To what thunderous surf? And what storm waves follow after them?