Brexit: The adults are no longer in charge in Downing Street

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Former ambassador Bobby McDonagh says the Cummings-driven cabal of ‘weirdos and misfits’ are now steering the UK onto a dangerous path in the Brexit negotiations.

MOST PARENTS AGREE that, when a small child throws a tantrum, they should do two things. They should retain their composure, contributing a sense of calm rather than injecting further anxiety into the situation; and they should at the same time be firm with the child about any aspect of its behaviour that is unacceptable.  

The recent report in the Financial Times that the Johnson Government is considering reneging on aspects of the legally-binding Brexit Withdrawal Agreement would, if confirmed, corroborate growing fears that the adults are no longer in charge in Downing Street.

It is noteworthy but not surprising that, according to the report, the British civil service is divided at the highest levels about an apparent willingness to walk away from the UK’s international legal obligations.

Adults need not apply

The strange behaviour at the heart of British Brexit policy is not a figment of some fevered EU imagination. It was Johnson’s right-hand man, Dominic Cummings, who called for the appointment of “weirdos and misfits” to the heart of Government.   

I expect that, despite the latest reported provocation, the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier, when he meets his British counterparts today, will demonstrate both aspects of the wisdom required of parents when faced by a tantrum.

He will maintain the admirable courtesy and calmness he has demonstrated throughout the Brexit negotiations, combining the wisdom of Solomon with the patience of Job. At the same time, he will be very firm about any behaviour that is unacceptable. 

There are now two major Brexit challenges to be resolved within less than two months. First, to agree on a deal on the future EU/UK relationship; and, second, to ensure the full and timely implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement including the Northern Ireland Protocol that governs the complex arrangements necessary to avoid a hard border on this island.

Even if the UK has insisted on aiming for a future relationship with the EU with minimal ambition in terms of breadth or depth, any agreement would be preferable to “no deal” for all concerned, notwithstanding a level of British insouciance about impending danger probably not witnessed since the Charge of the Light Brigade. 

There are few reasons for optimism. As Michel Barnier recalled in his recent address to the Institute for International and European Affairs in Dublin, there are still three major issues to be resolved: credible guarantees on open and fair competition, a balanced deal on fisheries and meaningful dispute settlement mechanisms.

The give and take

The EU wants a deal and has shown significant flexibility, including on the sensitive state aid issue. As Barnier recently pointed out, the EU is doing no more than asking to translate agreements already reached with the UK into legal text. 

The UK negotiators, on the other hand, have become transfixed by their particular notion of British sovereignty which, they argue, does not allow them to budge an inch. Whether they will budge in the end is beyond rational analysis, but it seems timely to recall six flaws in their understanding of sovereignty.

First, the very idea of Brexit from the outset was based on a false narrative about national sovereignty. For Brexiteers, sovereignty was something to be hoarded in an attic like a long-forgotten Farage family heirloom, or a dusty and delicate treasure to be buried under the Dominic Cummings seat in the Downing Street garden.

Sovereignty, according to the Brexit world view, was not the sovereignty most countries value in modern times, namely something to be used creatively and confidently in our necessarily interdependent world, as indeed the UK itself used it for so long with striking success. 

Second, UK negotiators wave the flag of sovereignty without understanding that the EU Member States are equally sovereign, both individually and, where they have pooled sovereignty, collectively.

Thus the UK bases its approach on the strange notion that the UK can insist that it alone and in isolation will determine its state aid policy but that the EU has no sovereign right to determine for itself balanced rules under which products and services will enter its market.  

The third flaw is indifference to the complexity of sovereignty. As Barnier reiterated recently on the fisheries issue, the EU respects that the UK will become an independent coastal state.

But fish do not carry passports. Fishermen and fish have always travelled between the waters of different countries; and, if there is a Brexit deal, most of the fish caught in British waters will continue to end up on plates in Paris and Bratislava.

Fourth, the much-proclaimed attachment to sovereignty does not stop British Brexit negotiators, in areas where it suits them, from seeking significant continuity with EU rules, for example on transport or energy trading. 

Your word is your bond

Fifth, there is no point talking up sovereignty if one is, at the same time, intent on undermining it. Few acts of sovereignty are as solemn as signing and ratifying an international treaty.

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A Treaty engages the state by proclaiming to the world that “this is our word and we will stand by it”. If the UK were, as reported, to default unilaterally on parts of the Withdrawal Agreement, it would not only be disrespecting the EU and international law but also insulting its own sovereignty. 

Sixth, while I respect British sovereignty, and some of the great things done in its name along of course with some bad stuff, the truth is that the sovereignty for which Brexit Britain would apparently be willing to do itself immense self-harm has a very distinctly English ring to it. Complex issues of sovereignty are understood quite differently in Scotland, Northern Ireland and increasingly in Wales.

If reports are true that some aspects of the Northern Ireland Protocol are now to be called into question, that would risk unravelling a sensitive and very hard-won agreement which minimises Brexit damage to a uniquely complex issue of sovereignty.

Agreement between the UK and EU over the coming weeks will only be possible if the real nature of sovereignty is understood.  

Bobby McDonagh is former Irish Ambassador to the EU, UK and Italy. He is an executive coach and commentator on subjects around EU and Brexit.

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