Time for a Swarm of Gadflies?

Whatever we may feel about Brexit, it has been done – in a manner of speaking – but it leaves lots of loose ends to be sorted out. Badly needed improvements can only be made if negotiations are conducted in a spirit of mutual trust and good will.

Many of us hoped that, after the closure of painful negotiations and the exit of Britain from the EU, Johnson’s government would have seen the advantages of mending some of the fences that had been broken with our neighbours during an antagonistic divorce process. This would also have helped to heal the deeply divisive effects of the Brexit process on British society and on the integrity of the Union.

Even if Britain may not want to continue to sit round the same tables as the other European governments, it is abundantly clear that our country, if only because of geography, has much to gain from restoring and maintaining an amicable and constructive relationship with institutions and people on the other side of the Channel. What has been signed is essentially a trade agreement but, in negotiating this, our government has thrown a lot of valuable babies out with the bathwater.

What is more worrying is that, having met their supporters’ call for Brexit, the Prime Minister and some members of his Cabinet seem now to be adopting a pattern of behaviour intended to further worsen our relationships with the people of Europe. It has all the appearances of a deliberate attempt to burn bridges.

An Emerging Pattern of Europhobic Behaviour

A Slap in the Face for the EU Ambassador

One of the first volleys fired was in January 2021 when the UK signalled its intention not to give the EU mission in the UK the full diplomatic status that its representatives enjoy in 142 other countries. The resulting spat soured relationships at a time when the priority should have been to get together calmly with EU officials to smooth out the many vexatious teething problems that the rushed Brexit agreement was causing to businesses in Britain and in European countries.

Dispatching Gunboats

As soon as the government had climbed down on the representation dispute, Johnson upped the tension again by ordering the dispatch of two gunboats to the Channel Isles in response to demonstrations by French fishermen against the loss of their traditional fishing rights. Embarking on military action may have gratified the Conservatives’ supporters on the eve of UK’s 6th May local elections but it scuppered the chances of any badly needed progress towards negotiating adjustments to the Brexit agreement that could lead to a better quid pro quo deal to resolve its disastrous effects on both British and French fishermen.

Extending the Hostile Environment to Arriving European Visitors

In 2012, Theresa May, then Home Secretary, announced a new set of policies describing their aim as “to create, here in Britain, a really hostile environment for illegal immigrants”. This led to the Windrush scandal. Now. many Europeans living in Britain, often for donkeys’ years, are finding themselves at the wrong end of these policies that put them at risk of deportation because of the practical problems they face in providing documentary evidence to justify their acquired right to gain settled status before the imminent closure of the government’s registration programme at the end of June.

In what appears to be the latest extension of ‘hostile’ actions, the Border Force has recently started to summarily detain European citizens arriving in good faith in the UK as visitors, removing their passports, mobile phones  and prescribed medicines before consigning them to prison-like immigration detention centres where they remain in custody till they are deported. Many have been deeply traumatised by this treatment which – like our government’s horrific treatment of asylum seekers – stains Britain’s international reputation as a fair and decent country.

This move seems yet another example of the present government’s intent to ratchet up tensions in our relationship with European nations. The hugely distressing and callous treatment of arriving European visitors, while directed at unfortunate individuals, has the effect of projecting an image across Europe – where it has been widely publicised – of Britain being an unfriendly country committed to deliberately building a hostile relationship with its neighbours and allies. The European Movement is petitioning the government to bring to an end to the detention and deportation of EU citizens legally entering the UK.

The fact that there have been no apologies for detaining and deporting European visitors without charge suggests that these are not the random acts of over-zealous Border Force officers but are orchestrated responses to signals from a Home Secretary keen to deepen rifts between UK and Europe. If continued, such churlish actions seem bound to trigger comparable moves against British travellers entering EU countries and British citizens resident in EU countries..

Creating Hurdles to Cultural Exchange

At first it looked as though the requirement implied in the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement that UK musicians and other performers touring in Europe would have to apply for a separate visa in each country through which they would play or travel was an unintended outcome of the negotiations relating to freedom of movement.

It increasingly seems that British acquiescence to this reflected the UK negotiators’ wish to increase Britain’s isolation from Europe. Apart from being disastrous for the incomes and careers of artistes and all the supporting services they employ (who are already badly hit by Covid 19), this would be enormously damaging to deeply embedded cultural relationships that long predate the founding of the European Union.

Similar to this, has been the Government’s withdrawal – contrary to earlier promises by Johnson – from Erasmus +.

A Possible Response

The government’s behaviour on each of these themes has been criticised by opposition parties and various elements of civil society.  In general, to the extent that there have been protests, petitions and critiques, these have been related to each specific topic, have been fragmented and have not been sustained.

It is evident that what we are seeing now are not isolated incidents but form parts of a pattern of ideology-driven behaviour that is intended to increasingly distance Britain from Europe so as to prevent any moves towards future rapprochement. In the coming months and until there is a next general election in Britain, we shall see many more instances of such Europhobia. These will ultimately widen the already alarming divisions between the nations of the United Kingdom and steadily erode the foundations of peaceful coexistence in the European region.

What is now required is a well-coordinated, relentless and vocal opposition to the government’s antagonistic approaches towards anything European. This would be aimed at strengthening public engagement in nurturing the concept of a ‘grown up’ constructive relationship between Britain and the rest of Europe.

The idea of creating a Progressive Alliance between opposition parties to defeat the present government in the next election is gaining ground. One of the issues on which it should be possible to get cross-party agreement in furthering its aim to “bring about a good society” is the need for Britain to have a government that wants amicable relationships with other European nations. This is not a matter of ‘remoaning’ or ‘rejoining’ but simply an acknowledgement that the majority of British voters would see that peaceful cooperation rather than further deliberate estrangement and the fanning of enmity is in our common interest.

The formation of a Progressive Alliance will take time but while it is coalescing there could be room for an informal pact for launching cooperation between aspiring member parties aimed at systematically exposing the foolishness of the government’s anti-European antics as soon as each new one is launched.

This could simply take the form of organising persistent questioning by representatives of each of the PA parties, focussed on getting the government to explain in simple terms why its action is so good for the average British citizen. Questioning in parliament, in the media, at constituency level, through social media and so on would be sustained until a credible explanation was given or the intended action was withdrawn. The public reaction to the government response would be tested through opinion polls that would help to shape future moves.

Informal coordination between opposition parties on this could help to build mutual confidence in the value of inter-party action and to create rising public support for a ‘normal’ neighbourly relationship with our nearest allies that would help Britain regain its good standing in the world.

If such a system for holding the government to account for any moves towards worsening relations with mainland Europe had been in place a month or two ago, we would probably still be pressing Johnson, day after day. for a plausible explanation of why it was in the interest of the average British citizen – and its fishermen – to send gunboats to Jersey. And he and his ministers would still be scratching the itches of their first gadfly bites when the next ones would strike.

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A Rather Long Response to John Mister

There are many practical reasons for not creating a re-joiners’ party. Or, to put it differently, there is much that can be done to restore a genuinely positive relationship with Europeans which could open the doors to eventual re-joining. This can best be done through working within the existing party framework.

I see huge, so far largely untapped, opportunities for swinging the public mood strongly against the leaders of the Brexit process to a point at which the polls would show a substantial majority emerging in each existing party in favour of assuring that our links with our European neighbours are filled with good will rather than damaged further by mistrust.

I would suggest that, at this stage, the focus of any campaigning should not yet be on re-joining but on highlighting the fact Brexit is not delivering on what many of those who voted to leave Europe were told to expect. They can now see that they have been badly let down on their expectations for frictionless trade, continued cooperation on dealing with crime, ease of access to EU countries, maintaining the global role of the ‘City’ in financial services, collaboration on research and health and other aspects of cooperation that have been essentially benign during our many years of membership.

They could be forgiven for assuming that ‘taking back control’ and restoring sovereignty was all about devolving responsibilities reclaimed from the EU to parliament in Westminster and to the national assemblies. They might now feel betrayed by power grabbing by ‘Number 10’ and the erosion of the role of our elected representatives in ensuring due scrutiny and oversight of government – including parliamentary oversight of the Brexit process itself which has been arbitrarily shut down by the Leader if the House.

It has also become evident that, in spite of the claims of Johnson, Gove and other ‘leave’ stalwarts that we have successfully negotiated a Free Trade Deal with the European Union, we have ended up with a cumbersome trading agreement that greatly complicates the movement of goods and people, adding substantial costs and administrative burdens to most transactions. These bring absolutely no benefits whatsoever to Britain or European countries and have already caused massive economic damage, some of which is irreversible as businesses have gone bust. To put it bluntly, it is a downright stupid deal and it is incredible that it could have been negotiated by British leaders who had promised us ‘frictionless’ trading arrangements.

Surprisingly, it has not yet dawned on many members of a British public (whose thoughts are mainly on how to emerge from the COVID pandemic and to start to return to a ‘normal’ life) that the greatest irony of the Brexit process is that it was born under the emblem of the Union Jack but the deal reached and celebrated by its promoters is now seriously threatening the very unity of our United Kingdom. I suspect that, in spite of the rise in ‘nationalism’ related to each component nation, the last thing that most voters want is to end the of the Union in which we have grown up just because Johnson and his English chums produced and continue to defend a deal that went against the expressed preferences of voters in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.

We have arrived at a situation in which Brexit is simultaneously damaging British prosperity, reigniting conflict in Northern Ireland and adding momentum to an already strong movement towards Scottish independence. This was not what the majority of British people voted for in 2016, and I am sure that it is not what most want now. We must cease to look a each of these issues separately and alert the public to the collective danger that they pose to the integrity of our country. This danger is real and can only be prevented by an immediate government commitment to reopen negotiations of the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union.

However, probably the most damaging outcome of the Brexit process has been its systemic undermining and exclusion of almost all the mechanisms through which we have worked fruitfully with our European fellow nations for many years. Our engagement in most of these arrangements for professional, scientific, legal and financial collaboration has not involved ceding any of our sovereignty to ‘bureaucrats in Brussels’. Yet we have had to helplessly watch our government’s hard-line negotiators engage in the deliberate demolition of institutional arrangements that are not just benign but also serve the common good of geographically close nations who face interconnected challenges that can only be effectively handled jointly.

This same team of negotiators allowed their own strongly anti-European convictions to undermine the good will that most British people – even many of those who resent the heavy hand of Brussels – know is so important for the nurturing of mature relationships in Europe. The steps taken, for example, to create formidable obstacles for cultural and artistic collaboration between our country and those across the Channel and to close down Erasmus are far from what was promised in 2016 and bring no gain to anyone.

At times like this, I often think of the sacrifices of my father and mother who lived through two devastating European Wars both of which were ignited because of a breakdown of trust and transparency between the nations from which our continent is composed. I believe that, as they look at the changing international balance of power, many people will be alarmed to see how Britain has not only weakened its own standing in the world through its self-isolation but also damaged the effectiveness of institutions that have contributed to nurturing peace in Europe throughout most of my lifetime.

Just 7 years ago, in his biography of Winston Churchill, Boris Johnson wrote of his mentor that “It was his idea to bring these counties together, to bind them so indissolubly that they could never go to war again – and who can doubt, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success?”

Little more needs to be said, because more and more of the British electorate have come to realise that they have been conned into supporting a process, championed by a compulsive liar, that endangers the lives of our children and grandchildren, by taking Britain out of an alliance that he himself has claimed to have assured our peace. He is not helping either himself or us by pretending that all of Britain’s current problems are the result of the Covid pandemic rather than of his pursuit of his personal obsession to become prime minister, regardless of the negative effects on our lives and those of future generations.

The European Movement is starting to lay bare the devastating impact of Brexit on many individuals. Following the recent changes, it has the capacity to play a leading role in building a national consensus that we have been led up the garden path and that we can do much better if we are honest with ourselves and with our allies. Given the growing awareness of massive patronage within government, corruption, irresponsible spending of taxpayers’ money (such as a possible twenty thousand million pounds invested in a failed search and trace system), delays in top-level decision-making that led to needless COVID deaths, and ministerial lying to parliament, this is the right moment for our Movement to pull all the stops out.

Let us give the government due credit for its successful furlough and vaccination programmes but not allow these to cover up the much more fundamental problems that their mishandling of Brexit and their pervasive amorality have created.

Apparently one in 5 people who survive Covid lose their sense of smell. But surely even they can still smell rats.

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As the lies come home to roost, will Brexit surely hit the buffers?

It has become politically incorrect to hark back to the actions of the leaders of the Brexit campaign in 2016. However, it now seems fair to question whether the Government is delivering on the promises that its leaders had made to its supporters almost five years ago.

The underlying message of the ‘leave’ campaign was summed up by Boris Johnson when he memorably assured us that a post-Brexit Britain could ‘have its cake and eat it’. On 16 April 2016, Michael Gove echoed this when he told voters that the UK would be able to trade freely within Europe even if it left the EU. We would have access to the Single Market but be free from European regulation.

This vision of a Britain ‘taking back control’ from the EU but continuing to enjoy what Johnson liked to describe as ‘frictionless’ trade with its members must have swayed many people to vote for ‘leave’. These people now have a right to blame the present government for failing to deliver on their expectations by negotiating a trade deal that deliberately created serious obstacles to the free movement of goods between the UK and EU countries.

Even on 24 December 2020, when Johnson hailed the ‘successful’ conclusion of a deal in a press conference and prepared to rush it through parliament without due scrutiny and debate, he sought to perpetuate the myth that it was an agreement to trade ‘without tariffs, without quotas’. Presumably, the Labour party leadership took this assurance seriously when it called on its MPs to support the agreement.

As soon as UK exporters and importers tried to restart trading with the EU in January this year, they found themselves overwhelmed by having to fill in complicated forms, expose their consignments to lengthy inspections and delays, and face a range of new customs-imposed charges, some of which had to be paid by unsuspecting recipients. ‘Number 10’ claimed that these were ‘teething problems’.

Three months later, the problems are still there. Many small and medium-scale businesses have had to suspend trading with Europe and some have gone bust. The overall impact on business earnings and employment on both sides of the Channel must be vast. There are no winners.

I am a British citizen resident in Italy and, in the last month, have twice been directly affected by the new trading arrangements. In one instance, we sent 12 bottles of local wine to our elder son in England as a birthday present. The courier’s charge had risen by about 30% since Brexit to cover their extra administrative costs and risks of delays and the shipper warned me that Harry would have to pay £28 customs duty on the wine on its arrival. He ended up paying £55.61, consisting of Customs Duty (£0.90), Advance Payments (£11.00), Excise Duty (£26.78) and Value Added Tax (£16.93). The combined effect was to increase the aggregate cost of the delivered wine by over 50% above the pre-Brexit cost for the same transaction!

The second case related a birthday present sent to my wife by her brother in Scotland. It was a hold-all, valued at £50, that weighed less than 1kg, posted via Royal Mail on 12 March at a cost of £13.80. There was no indication to the sender that there would be any other charges. It took four weeks to arrive here and I was required by the Italian postal service to pay €12.65 for VAT and a further €7.50 for their retrieving the parcel from Customs.

These minor brushes with reality have been irritating, but they made me think of the huge scale of the problem. The experience has convinced me that the time has come for the European Movement – and the opposition parties – to vehemently expose the deep flaws in the Trade Agreement and especially the government’s betrayal of its promises that brought so many ‘leave’ supporters on board. We must now also stop letting them continue to use the woes caused by COVID 19 as a cover for the massive economic and political damage being caused by their botched Brexit trade deal.

The first signals of public unwillingness to swallow Johnson’s lies on Brexit customs arrangements are coming out of Belfast. While all political parties in Northern Ireland are condemning the rioters for the violence, they must look themselves in the mirror and accept that their willingness to go along with an unworkable Brexit deal is provoking the unrest. Rather than seek to marginalise, disown and suppress the rioters, perhaps they should listen to their grievances and explore how to respond to them in an honest and transparent manner.

It looks as though the only practical solution to the Irish problem is for the UK government and the EU to agree immediately to turn the clock back to the temporary trading conditions that prevailed in the transition period (up to 31 December 2020), while jointly declaring their intent to embark on negotiating a truly ‘frictionless’ deal that would ensure genuinely free and prosperous trade across Europe. This drastic move would also forestall the real prospect of the break-up of the United Kingdom in the wake of the upcoming elections in Scotland.

Sorry, Boris, it’s high time for yet another U-turn.

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