From THE TABLET, 17 September 2020

When trouble is brewing at home, populist leaders sometimes find it useful to pick a fight with a foreign neighbour, to whip up patriotic feeling and distract attention from domestic difficulties. This is one possible account of Boris Johnson’s motives for issuing a threat to disregard international law, on the pretext that the European Union side in the current trade negotiations was acting unreasonably and therefore in bad faith. But is he that calculating? It was clear from Monday’s House of Commons debate that the government’s position was full of holes.

The casus belli of this display of diplomatic belligerence was an alleged observation by an EU negotiator that countries outside the EU could only import food into it if they were on the list of countries whose food safety standards were the same as the EU’s or better. Britain certainly fits that criterion now, being still covered by those rules, but has not agreed a set of safety standards for when the rules no longer apply. This has raised suspicions that the UK wants to keep all its options open in trade negotiations with the United States, where standards are definitely lower.

The EU is naturally eager to keep American chlorinated chicken and hormone-fattened beef off the dinner plates of Dublin, not to mention Paris and Berlin. Such goods could enter EU territory, for instance, by being exported across the open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, having first been ferried across from Great Britain. The EU’s desire to stop this would amount to what Johnson called a “blockade”. This would, he claimed, be an “extreme” interpretation of the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement which he signed earlier this year. So he proposed a new law to override it.

This provoked an outcry from the more scrupulous members of his party, who felt – rightly – that Britain’s reputation for upholding international law was being trashed for no good reason. In any event, Johnson’s blockade threat looks utterly spurious as the only people able to enforce it would be the British themselves. The EU was never proposing to send warships to intercept blockade-running vessels in the Irish Sea. So the watching world will ask itself – who is really acting in bad faith here?

At least at this stage of the argument, Johnson’s tactics seem to have done the trick, as all but a few Tory MPs voted for the new law in principle. Whatever happens next, the damage has been done (and not least to the honour of the Conservative Party itself). A deliberate intention to break international law has been declared; Britain can no longer criticise the Chinese, say, for breaking its treaty with regard to Hong Kong, nor indeed the Israeli government for the unlawful occupation of the West Bank. The best hope must be that the EU negotiating team will act as the adults in this dysfunctional relationship, and refuse to retaliate. A compromise on food safety standards can either be negotiated now or will emerge from the arbitration process which the treaty allows for. And so when the dust has settled, what will be left is a Britain that has recklessly thrown away its reputation for integrity – because of a prime minister who believes he is above the law.

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