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Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Does Not Amount to Leaving the European Union

James Heartfield

28 October 2019

The Withdrawal Agreement (WA) between Boris Johnson and the European Union agreed this month is not Brexit. On the contrary, the agreement ties us into the neoliberal policies of the European Union at the expense of Britain’s democratic self-government.


The WA commits to “ensuring a level playing field for open and fair competition” (para 17) and “deep regulatory and customs cooperation” (para 21) for the next two to three years and after that to a free trade agreement that “ensure[s] no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors with... ambitious customs objectives that are in line with the Parties’ objectives and principles” (Political Declaration, para 22).


The Political Declaration (PD) commits the UK to the view that “the Parties should uphold the common high standards applicable in the Union and the United Kingdom at the end of the transition period in the areas of state aid, competition, social and employment standards, environment, climate change, and relevant tax matters.” Further, it underlines the point that “The Parties should in particular maintain a robust and comprehensive framework for competition and state aid control that prevents undue distortion of trade and competition.”


This means that British governments would foreswear state aid and intervention to protect industry. Measures in the Labour Party’s program, including nationalisation of the railways, would be barred. Further, policies to defend British workers from exploitation by unscrupulous employers would be barred as “uncompetitive”.


The PD also sacrifices the British fishing industry, promising  “cooperation on... regulation of fisheries, in a non-discriminatory manner” (para 72), and “access to waters and quota shares” (para 73), which is to say that non-British vessels will continue to have access to British waters, and further that British fishermen will be subject to the quotas limiting their fishing in those waters.


Further, the WA commits the UK to surrender control over customs and economic policy in part of its territory, Northern Ireland. Whilst many supporters of The Full Brexit might take issue with Britain’s presence in Northern Ireland at all, they have to face the fact that to settle that dispute within the context of this bad compromise cannot lead to any positive outcome. Does anyone think that Irish sovereignty is advanced by the Withdrawal Agreement? I suggest not.


Tony Blair’s assessment of the new WA is right:


The problem in the end is if you really want to diverge on tax and regulation and go your own way on issues to do with trade, if you really want that the only way you’re going to get that is by doing no-deal. If you do a deal with Europe they’re going to bolt you down as we’ve just seen in relation to Northern Ireland.


Supporters of Boris’s deal make much of the fact that the elements of Theresa May’s deal that were held to be objectionable are no longer under one heading, but under another: “Political Declaration”.


This apparently means that they are not part of the WA, but only a broad political statement that is not binding. But that is not true. They are part of the Agreement, as is set out in paragraph 184, which commits the UK and EU “to take the necessary steps to negotiate expeditiously the agreements governing their future relationship referred to in the Political Declaration”. You only have to ask yourself whether the European Union would sign the WA without the PD attached to it, or whether they would suffer the deletion of article 18 to understand that it is part of the agreement.


In a recent article on The Full Brexit, Lee Jones claims that this part of the agreement is “not binding” and that it is dishonest to claim so (see Why Parliament Should Pass Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement). But that is a confusion. Absent a world government, no treaty is binding. Any nation can withdraw from any agreement if it chooses to. The only sanctions are those that the other party and its allies would be willing to take. Britain could, if it was minded to, withdraw from the European Union next week, simply by repealing the European Communities Act. The commitment to the provisions of the WA that are (somewhat) time-limited are not more nor less compelling than those that are within the political declaration. 


To claim that the political declaration is somehow not a real commitment but just a bit of fluff that can be overturned at a later date is a fundamentally dishonest position. In the House of Commons Jacob Rees-Mogg made this claim in response to Diane Cherry of the Scottish National Party. Cherry pointed out that the European Court of Justice still had authority over the British courts under the political statement. Rees-Mogg waffled about how the ECJ’s influence would melt away in the course of time. This was a bit like Stalin saying that the state would wither away in the course of time. Without explaining how that would happen, it was an empty claim.


Worse, the argument that the PD is contingent and that it does not commit us to anything is an attempt to say two different things to two different interlocutors at the same time. But you cannot make policy by saying something and winking broadly to the audience to suggest that you mean something else. 


The argument that the political statement is empty is comparable to the prime minister sending several letters to the EU Commission saying, “give us an extension”, “don’t give us an extension” and “the Parliament has asked for an extension”. The compulsion to divide political authority between the reluctantly embraced EU process and the broad aside that “we don’t mean it” is not a way to meet the problem, but only a way to put it off.


It is surely a basic socialist principle that you do not “dissemble before the working class”. To speak with two tongues is perhaps typical of High Diplomatic realpolitik, but for democratic politics it is the death of accountability. To say one thing and mean another makes it impossible to be held to account. It appeals precisely to that elitist idea of “insiders” who understand the onerous obligations of performing to the masses, versus “outsiders” who only hear the explicit message.


What, after all, was wrong with being in the European Union if it was not the mystification of the decision-making process, hiding political authority behind the veil of international obligations.

The question that activists need to ask themselves is: “do you agree with those ambitions?” If you do not, then you ought to oppose the WA. Lee Jones’ contribution falls somewhere between “is” and “ought”. He says that we cannot get anything better. That is not true. But underlying his argument is that we ought not to ask for anything better, for fear that we will lose this compromise deal.


Before acting, it is usual to think about what you want. If you want Britain to commit itself not to support industry, to adopt free market economic policies, and to do so not through its own choices but in order to maintain alignment with the European Union, then of course you should support Johnson’s WA.


If, instead, you think that Britain should be a self-governing nation, where democratic debate decides policy on state aid, labour regulation and all things, then you ought to oppose it. The argument that this might be a platform to fight for a full Brexit at another date is a misunderstanding of how political action works. When you compromise, your compromise becomes the new reality. If you want to go to Blackpool, don’t buy a ticket to Brighton. These are not two different roads to the same goal – they are different goals.


The Johnson strategy based on focus groups favouring the slogan “get Brexit done” has a double meaning: “make it happen/get it over with”. Throughout the summer Johnson shifted attention from the question of Britain’s constitutional settlement to his own amour propre – no longer were people called upon to push for democracy, but to fight for the prime minister – “I would die in a ditch”. Not surprisingly, Johnson’s standing was waxed while support for Brexit has waned. With the WA we can see that the Prime Minister was always pushing to save the Tory Party by getting an agreement that was acceptable to the European Union and, more importantly, the Remain clique in the British establishment. 


Lee Jones says that this is all that is possible given the parliamentary arithmetic. But that is what Brexiteers need to change. To allow one’s horizons to be set by the current parliamentary arithmetic is to set oneself against Brexit. Jones takes a pop at the Brexit Party, but that seems unfair. It is only because the Brexit Party gave organisational expression to it that the case for Leaving was not lost in the summer. 

About the author

James Heartfield is the author of The European Union and the End of Politics (Zero Books, 2013). His most recent book is The Blood-Stained Poppy: A Critique of the Politics of Commemoration, written with Kevin Rooney and published this month.

This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.

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