Monday, October 3

Boris Johnson has condemned Britain to reproduce Brexit in a loop | Rafael behr


In the war of words over fishing rights in the English Channel, much attention has been paid to a single line in a leaked letter from Jean Castex, the French Prime Minister, to Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission .

The nuances of the offensive sentence vary in translation, but the gist is that European public opinion should have no doubt that there is more pain associated with leaving the European Union than staying in it.

To the eurosceptic ear, that was confirmation of a spiteful motive on the continent. France, it was alleged, wants to “punish” Britain for choosing freedom. Seen from the other side, Castex was simply reaffirming the obvious logic of Brexit: it is a repudiation of European solidarity and a gamble on the advantages that an individual trader could gain in rivalry with a union. The union members have a stake in that gamble not working.

British Eurosceptics are strangely picky about that banal strategic fact. It is simply the corollary of his own flowery rhetoric over the years, denouncing Brussels as a parasite undermining national vitality and extolling Brexit as proof of the obsolescence of the EU, the first step in a great collapse. Obviously, the European project is reinforced if Boris Johnson is humiliated, and vice versa.

In the fisheries dispute, France deserves a large share of blame for the cynical escalation. President Macron is making saber rattling with his sights set on his national audience ahead of next year’s elections. But his attitude is tinged with a seething contempt for a British prime minister whom he sees as a stranger to probity. That sentiment was compounded by the recent poaching of a lucrative defense contract to build Australian submarines as part of Aukus’ security deal with Washington. But it is Johnson’s treatment of the Northern Ireland protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement, signing a treaty with no intention of implementing its terms, that convinced the French president that Downing Street had become completely dishonest.

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The crisis in Northern Ireland is far more dangerous than a fuss over cod. But they are symptoms of the same syndrome: a Brexit model that makes sovereignty a sacred principle. All traces of EU institutional influence must be removed from the land and dredged from the sea. That fixation guarantees tension at all borders where old fluid habits are subject to the friction of new controls, forms and licenses.

The material gains from maximizing sovereignty in this way are nil, while the costs rise. But admitting that the model is flawed is unthinkable in Johnson’s conservative party. Or rather, unspeakable. There are MPs who understand what has gone wrong, but only anticipate ostracism if they speak out. That leads to two political options. First, exaggerate or make up fictitious profits by removing EU rules. Rishi Sunak dabbled in this with his budget speech last week, falsely presenting the alcohol tax cuts as a Brexit dividend. (The classifications of alcoholic beverages will in fact diverge from the European directives, but the price drops that accompany them would still have been allowed.)

Second, turn international grudge into national political advantage: cite channel squabbles as proof of Brussels’ malevolence and then again blame Brexit’s intrinsic economic pain as a vengeful reaction from the continent. This tactic is already being tested in Northern Ireland. What the EU calls the implementation of a signed agreement, the hard-line Eurosceptics denounce as a blockade.

It is a feasible political strategy, albeit an unpleasant one. But it lacks a crucial element: heroic destiny. Throughout history, revolutionary movements have excused their failures by blaming foreign sabotage. But they have also kept up the momentum with visions of a utopian future. That too was the Brexit method, as long as EU membership could become the scapegoat for a whole range of social and economic ills. Now the evils persist, but the proposed remedy has already been taken.

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In that sense (and only in that) Brexit is a victim of its own success. Britain cannot go further out of the EU. Frost is scraping the barrel of sovereignty. The awkward conservative squad that hounded David Cameron in a referendum and later forced Theresa May out of office seeking compromises with economic reality got everything it could have wanted from Johnson. They know their battle is won and they are saddling different workhorses, riding to new fronts in the culture war, complaining about the cost of reducing carbon emissions in the tone they once used for the “Brussels bureaucracy”.

Johnson has tried to hold up the Brexit rhetoric like a sunlit mountain. His speech at the party conference last month promised a high-wage, highly-skilled economy that would emerge in the absence of migrant labor. But that was a rehearsal crisis utopia, improvised from news snippets about labor shortages and broken supply chains. Plus, the most memorable thing Johnson ever promised about Brexit is that he would get it done. That legacy is diluted every time the topic makes the news, as it will continue to do.

The search for a purer sovereignty will generate tension with neighboring countries, which will later be cited as proof that only the purest sovereignty will suffice. This is not the typical revolution in which the end can justify the means. The ends have already been reached. Membership in the EU has expired. Instead, we are trapped in the purgatory of infinite means: a sisyphus nightmare of ongoing negotiations reaching a certain point of agreement before breaking down and restarting. Johnson’s Brexit condemns Britain to forever re-enact the tedious and bitter process of leaving without hope of satisfaction, because we have already left.

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