Nancy Pelosi is a busy lady. When she isn’t out and about on the streets of San Francisco, ducking into a salon to get her hair done, she is — I can only presume — reading up on the ins and outs of European international law. If you, like countless others, are having difficulty following the notorious complexity of the Brexit-induced Irish border debacle — worry not! Nancy, top Democrat and a master of EU talking points, can be relied upon to illuminate.
“If the U.K. violates that international treaty and Brexit undermines the Good Friday accord, there will be absolutely no chance of a U.S.–U.K. trade agreement passing the Congress,” Pelosi said in a statement last week. Funny that for someone so confident (“absolutely no chance”), her fears (“violates” and “undermines”) are so vague.
Daniel Hannan, a former member of the European Parliament, argues convincingly in the Telegraph that the fearmongering over the Good Friday agreement is merely a continuation of the same cynical politicking that Brussels has been up to since Britain’s former prime minister, Theresa May, lost her parliamentary majority three years ago. “Only in late 2017 did Eurocrats come up with the outré notion that they might somehow keep Northern Ireland within their grip,” Hannan writes. While Boris Johnson acquired a strong majority (in last December’s general election), Hannan notes that he initially “inherited [May’s] minority and her draft Withdrawal Agreement,” and with it “her dilemma.”
Johnson has insisted that the fault for the mess lies with the EU, which, during negotiations, increasingly failed to uphold its side of the bargain. With Brexit already enacted, free trade, as well as regulatory consistency between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom (and the Republic of Ireland), were achievable goals in 2020. It’s a convenient message for Johnson to sell to the public: Brussels has forced his government’s hand by continuing to negotiate in bad faith. The only way out of this, he claims, is to make minor infractions of the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, ensuring that Britain will “have protections that guarantee the integrity of the UK.” The trouble is, he’s changed his tune several times, previously calling the EU’s deal “fantastic,” when it was politically convenient for him to do so.
Still, on the north–south Irish border issue, Brussels is clearly overdoing it: The situation relates mostly to the transfer of agricultural produce and, in other words, has little to do with political stability in the region. Hannan nails it when he writes:
Some EU politicians, perhaps with an eye on Irish America, pretend that this is about the peace process; but, even in the topsy-turvy world of Brussels, you can’t seriously argue that trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the Republic would violate the Good Friday Agreement but that trade barriers between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would not.
In any case, the British government does have the numbers in Parliament to push through its agenda. Yesterday, MPs voted 340 to 263 to move ahead to override aspects of the Withdrawal Agreement that would permit the government to override the EU’s legally binding Northern Ireland Protocol should it become unreasonable or excessive.
As expected, the extent to which politicians think this will destabilize Ireland’s north–south relations tends to correlate with what one thinks about Brexit. Boris Johnson has said that his legislation is supposed to “protect the Northern Irish peace process and the Good Friday Agreement” (because of course he would say that), while Sinn Fein complains that this would “critically undermine the Good Friday Agreement political framework and peace process” (ditto). Arlene Foster, leading of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, complains that the EU “needs to stop using Northern Ireland to get their own way” since the “integrity of the UK market has to be protected as much as north–south trade.” With that, I suspect most Britons would agree.
Legally and domestically, it’s a giant mess, and there are no easy solutions. But this is precisely why, diplomatically speaking, Britain’s allies ought to tread lightly. In 2016, President Obama warned the U.K. that if Britain left Europe, they’d be “back of the queue” for a trade deal with the U.S. His intervention was counterproductive, and he was rightly lambasted for interfering in so patronizing a way. Unfortunately, Pelosi has not learned the lesson.