The Protocol Gerry OShea
Great Britain is a class-driven society and the top echelons, most with strong conservative and Tory credentials, operate with inbred delusions of grandeur. Their rhetoric and belief system revolve around their self-perceived history of glorious colonial expansion so extensive one time that the sun never set on its far-flung empire.
In Europe, British leaders boast with good reason that they led the forces of progress and democracy to victory in two horrendous world wars against Germany, a country that they still view with a gimlet eye.
They joined the European Economic Community in 1973, after being rejected for membership by Charles De Gaulle twice in the sixties. Now called the European Union (EU) and expanded to include countries in central and eastern Europe, it includes by far the largest supranational trading organization in the world with 27 members and a population of 447 million.
The movement in Britain for leaving the EU was driven by Tory dissatisfaction with the diminishment of their importance in the new power locations on the continent. The Conservative Party pounded the anti-European drum, claiming that leaguing with Commonwealth countries and former colonies would restore their sense of superiority and open up new avenues for trade.
Still, during their 43 years of EU membership before Brexit in 2016, Britain did well economically within the trading block.
In 2016, the Tories - with a largely compliant popular press - convinced 52% of the people in a divisive plebiscite that they could do better on their own, away from the bureaucrats in Brussels. The perceptive Irish writer Fintan O’Toole put it succinctly, “England never got over winning the Second World War. Brexit was imperial England’s last, last stand.”
Significantly, the Brexit referendum was soundly defeated in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and the most recent polls reveal that if they got a second chance, close to 60% of the overall population would say no.
The impact of the 2016 decision has been disastrous for the British economy and for the standard of living there. Last June, data emerged from the European Commission which confirm the worst fears of the withdrawal effects on trade: exports from the UK to the EU (still the UK’s largest trading partner) in 2021 were 14% down from 2020 and 25% lower than in 2019.
The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) claims that Great Britain has the second worst prognosis for economic growth among G20 nations, below all other members except Russia which is treated as a pariah because of its reprehensible invasion of Ukraine.
Expansion in business investment in the UK which prior to 2016 tracked the rate of other G7 economies, has stagnated since. This depletion in productivity has led to a significant drop in the country’s level of prosperity.
Economists agree that the vote to leave the bloc has resulted in lower household incomes. They also contend that new trade agreements with countries like Australia as well as the promised boom resulting from dispensing with the despised European regulations do not come close to blunting the damage resulting from abandoning its EU membership.
The Office for Budget Responsibility, a fiscal watchdog, predicts that, instead of small annual growth rates typical for EU countries, the UK economy has finished 4% smaller – draining $100 billion annually from their previous productivity.
Mark Carney, former Bank of England governor, went even further in decrying all the pretensions of Brexit, “Put it this way, in 2016, the British economy was 90% the size of Germany’s. Now it is less than 70%.”
Brexit presented a tangled problem for the small island of Ireland. The internal border with the northern part proclaiming British sovereignty and the remainder of the island an independent republic and staunch EU member did not fit easily with the neighboring island’s decision to leave the trading union. The protocol was designed to respect the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement which successfully ended the destructive era of the Troubles.
The North has been dysfunctional from the beginning. The trailing consequences of the Westminster partition of Ireland a hundred years ago is still partly driving today’s events. The Government of Ireland Act which created the six-county statelet was demanded by unionists backed by 100,000 armed men. This division was opposed by all nationalists at the time and the British establishment, unionists to a man, also favored some kind of unitary arrangement.
That triumphalist unionist culture which sanctioned decades of blatant discrimination against nationalists has now morphed into a perpetual victimization syndrome. As John Hume, the late great nationalist leader, put it, “If the word no were removed from the English language, the unionist leaders would be speechless.”
Anyway, the protocol was negotiated between Westminster and Brussels with the goal of honoring the 1998 Good Friday Agreement which initiated a long period of peace between the two communities in the North. Importantly, it gave business people in Northern Ireland access not only to markets in the United Kingdom but also with the right to avail of the privileges of full access to EU markets.
Then Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, guided the bill through parliament in 2019 after extensive negotiations with the EU leadership. Imagine the consternation when a year or so afterwards he disavowed his previous commitment at the behest of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leaders claiming that it leaves them, devout loyalists, with allegiance to two governments.
Ironically, Mr. Johnson, now in the back benches, is wavering in his support for the Windsor framework, which, by any standards, is better for unionists than what he negotiated. Mr. Sunak is caught in a similar bind, proclaiming in Belfast his firm allegiance to the union while pointing out how lucky they are to have unhindered access to the bountiful European markets – never mentioning that his party led the rest of the UK out of those lucrative markets.
The DUP leader, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, agrees that the new deal meets some of their concerns, but there are a few sticking points – and so the old game goes on.
Meanwhile, Europe is grappling with their biggest crisis since the end of the Second World War, Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. The EU and Great Britain are staunchly together in supporting the government in Kyiv. They are standing four-square with the Western democracies, determined to confront the clicking heel of Putin’s totalitarianism.
Brexit and the protocol will continue to occupy the leaders in Belfast, Dublin and Brussels. The Windsor arrangements will pass in Westminster with a clear majority. However, the DUP is unlikely to endorse a settlement that leaves them in no-man’s land, partly attached and to some degree subject to both jurisdictions.
Sunak is offering what is surely the British government’s last best effort to assuage their sensitivities. Compromise now surely represents their best hope for the future.
Gerry OShea blogs at wemustbetalking.com