Last week, I watched President Bill Clinton’s speech in Londonderry in 1995 for the first time. In 2020, the bittersweet words of Clinton and John Hume, words of peace, unity, and shared humanity, seemed to come from another planet.
It is nauseating that Boris Johnson’s government has chosen to endanger this hard won peace for the sake of appearing tough in Brexit negotiations. The irony is that on the international stage, the appearance of the UK is of weakness and delusion. We are now firmly out in the cold.
Given the established ties between Johnson and Trump, it is difficult not to wonder if the UK government is softly signalling support for a Trump win in 2020. As condemnation thundered in from the US, the Democrats were much more scathing of Johnson on this matter than their Republican counterparts. This, combined with Trump’s indications of wanting a deal with the UK, give the impression it would be in the government’s interest for Trump to remain in the White House.
Parliament voted the controversial UK Internal Market Bill through its second reading by a majority of 77. The bill proposed giving the government powers to unilaterally withdraw from the Brexit deal struck with the EU in 2019, on which Boris Johnson heavily campaigned. Aside from violating international law, in allowing us to withdraw from the agreement, the bill also pushes us closer to a no deal Brexit. This would likely result in a disastrous hard border in Ireland.
The response to the bill domestically and internationally has been scathing. In an interview on Channel Four News last week, US Democratic Congressman for Pennsylvania Brendan Boyle delivered a verbal beat down on the UK’s government. Boyle, who is currently campaigning for re-election, stated in no uncertain terms that if the UK government compromises the Good Friday Agreement by passing the UK Internal Market Bill, “there will be no US/UK free trade agreement, period.” Despite the UK government asserting that the bill does not interfere with the Good Friday Agreement, Boyle was not convinced, saying: “I give them credit for saying that with a straight face. Absolutely no-one believes that, that is sheer nonsense.”
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi later also came out in support, stating that she hoped Johnson is not banking on any trade deal. Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden also weighed in, tweeting that “Any trade deal made between the U.S. and U.K. must be contingent upon … preventing the return of a hard border.”
The Republican Party has echoed the sentiments of the Democrats regarding the Irish border, albeit far more quietly, when Donald Trump’s special envoy in Northern Ireland Mick Mulvaney expressed concern over the prospect of “creating a hard border by accident”.
Whilst there is cross party consensus in the US over the Irish Border issue, the Democrats’ aggressive response suggests that a Biden presidency now means that the UK will have to significantly alter its bullish behaviour if it is to stand any chance of negotiating a free trade deal with the US. The fact that the government initially doubled down after these threats gives an indication that as long as a Trump second term is a possibility, they will not be swayed.
Nonetheless, even Trump has indicated that his administration is not willing to negotiate on anything which might risk the Good Friday Agreement, and his presidency is willing to work with Congress to ensure the agreement is protected.
The difference is that Trump has already developed a stronger relationship with Johnson during his time in office. Biden meanwhile has now made it very clear that he is less willing to show the same warmth towards the Prime Minister in any trade deal. There is no guarantee either way, but the magnitude of the Democrats’ response has shown that they will be happy to make life difficult for Johnson and the UK negotiators if need be.
US concerns about Ireland are not unfounded. In addition to being a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the US has long felt a responsibility towards Ireland due to many US citizens being descended from the Irish diaspora, and the subsequent concerns of pro-Irish lobbyists. On top of this, the continuing EU membership of the Republic of Ireland means that it will remain a free trading partner of the US.
Secretary of State for Justice Robert Buckland, despite admitting that the bill breaks the law, said that he was comfortable with this as long as the law was not broken in a way he found “unacceptable”.
Theresa Villiers, a conservative MP formerly of Johnson’s cabinet, argued in the bill’s second reading that disputes in international law are not uncommon, and that it is less a legal system and more of a “political construct”, which is incorrect. States are considered to have a moral obligation to follow international law, and to break it in a significant way, such as one that directly affects how other countries will deal with them, will be met with consequences.
If a country is a signatory to an international treaty, it is obliged to abide by the terms of that treaty. It doesn’t even matter that the government has conceded to a separate vote on giving it power to leave the agreement, or that this bill will likely be mauled by the Lords before or even if it ultimately passes into statute. Boris Johnson’s government has told the world that the word of the United Kingdom cannot be trusted.
If Trump wins a second term, any Democrats and Republicans seeking to uphold the Good Friday Agreement will still be able to stall any UK/US free trade deal in the Senate and the House. Should this happen, they’ll likely demand it be contingent on an open border. If Biden wins, Johnson will have just made life much harder for a post-Brexit UK to find anyone willing to do business.
Make no mistake, after the passing of the Internal Market Bill, it matters not who wins in November, the UK loses. Period.
Words by Kit Roberts
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