Boris Johnson condemned Britain to replay Brexit over and over again | Rafael Behr
In the war of words over fishing rights in the Channel, much attention was 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 offending sentence vary in the translation, but the main thing is that European public opinion should not doubt that it is more painful to leave the European Union than to stay there.
To Eurosceptic ears, it was confirmation of a malicious motive on the continent. France, it has been claimed, wants to “punish” Britain for choosing freedom. Seen from the other side, Castex was only 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 a rivalry with a union. Union members have an interest in not paying off this bet.
British Eurosceptics are strangely thorny about this mundane strategic fact. It is simply the corollary of their own flowery rhetoric over the years, denouncing Brussels as a parasite that undermines national vitality and touting Brexit as proof of the EU’s obsolescence – the first step in a grand denouement. Obviously, the European project is strengthened if Boris Johnson is humiliated, and vice versa.
In the fisheries dispute, France deserves a large share of the blame for the cynical escalation. President Macron is making noise by keeping an eye on his national audience ahead of next year’s elections. But his attitude is tinged with a bubbling contempt for a British Prime Minister whom he considers a stranger to probity. This sentiment has been significantly compounded by the recent poaching of a lucrative defense contract to build Australian submarines as part of the Aukus security deal with Washington. But it was Johnson’s treatment of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement – the signing of a treaty with no intention of implementing its terms – that convinced the French president that Downing Street had become a real thug.
The crisis in Northern Ireland is far more dangerous than a fight over cod. But these are the symptoms of the same syndrome: a Brexit model that makes it a sacred principle of sovereignty. Any trace of the EU’s institutional influence must be wiped from the land and dredged from the sea. This fixation secures tension at all borders where old current habits are subject to the rubbing of new controls, forms and licenses.
The material gains from such maximization of sovereignty are nil, while the costs increase. But admitting that the model is flawed is unthinkable in Johnson’s Conservative Party. Or rather, unspeakable. There are members who understand what is wrong, but only anticipate ostracism if they had to speak out. This leads to two political choices. First, exaggerate or invent fictitious advantages of removing EU rules. Rishi Sunak got involved with his budget speech last week, misleading the alcohol tax cuts as a Brexit dividend. (The classifications of alcoholic beverages will indeed deviate from European directives, but the corresponding price cuts would still have been allowed.)
Second, transform international resentment into a national political advantage: cite cross-Channel disputes as proof of Brussels’ malevolence, then reclassify the economic pain intrinsic to Brexit as a vindictive reaction from the continent. Already this tactic is being repeated in Northern Ireland. What the EU calls the implementation of a signed agreement, supporters of the Eurosceptic hardline denounce as a blockade.
It is a feasible political strategy, albeit a nasty one. But it lacks a crucial element: the heroic destination. Revolutionary movements throughout history have found excuses for their failures by accusing foreign sabotage. But they also kept their momentum going with visions of a utopian future. It was also the Brexit method, as long as EU membership could be the scapegoat for a whole host of social and economic ills. Now the ailments remain but the proposed remedy has already been taken.
In this sense (and only this one) Brexit is a victim of its own success. Britain can no longer leave the EU. Frost scrapes the barrel of sovereignty. The clumsy Tory team that pushed David Cameron to a referendum, then pushed Theresa May to resign for seeking compromises with economic reality, got everything they could expect from Johnson. They know their battle is won and ride different battle horses, set off for new fronts in the war of cultures, complain about the cost of reducing carbon emissions in the tone they once used for “Brussels paperwork” .
Johnson tried to back the rhetoric of Brexit as a sunny highlands. His speech at the party conference last month promised a high-wage, high-skill economy that would thrive in the absence of migrant labor. But it was a trial crisis utopia, concocted from scraps of information about labor shortages and broken supply chains. Also, by far the most memorable thing Johnson has ever promised about Brexit is that he would. This legacy is diluted each time the problem arises in the news, as it will continue to happen.
The hunt for purer sovereignty will generate tensions with neighboring countries, which will then be cited as proof that only the purest sovereignty will suffice. This is not the typical revolution where the end can justify the means. The ends have already been reached. EU membership has expired. Instead, we’re stuck in the Purgatory of Endless Means: a Sisyphus nightmare of ongoing negotiations that come to some point of agreement before collapsing and restarting. Johnson’s Brexit condemns Britain to forever replay the tedious and bitter process of leaving with no hope of satisfaction, because we are already gone.