A sad weekend for the British Isles, following the death of the Duke of Edinburgh at the age of 99. The Duke’s wit, grit and irreverence have brightened up British public life for the last three-quarters of a century, and he will be greatly missed.
A final goodbye
The news from Northern Ireland has been no cheerier, with continued violence on the streets of Belfast. The obituaries of Prince Philip, with their mentions of the murder the Prince’s uncle and advisor Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in 1979, are a timely reminder of the dark days before the Good Friday Agreement. It is imperative that the UK government and the EU act fast, to ensure that this level of violence does not become the norm for a new generation in Northern Ireland.
The most recent wave of protests was sparked by the decision not to prosecute Sinn Féin leaders for breaching Covid rules at the funeral of Bobby Storey, former IRA intelligence chief, last June. However, the protestors’ grievances are also closely tied up with dissatisfaction at the EU’s excessively strict implementation of the Irish Protocol.
The EU continues to make the disingenuous case that full implementation of the Protocol is the only way to bring peace to Northern Ireland. This is a strange argument. A much simpler and more effective way to calm tensions would be a pragmatic relaxation of customs checks. Such as relaxation poses no real threat to the integrity of the Single Market. The EU does not need physical customs posts. Acting as if it does is irresponsible and corrosive to Northern Irish peace. It must stop now.
Memorial statue of Lord Mountbatten
In better news, the UK continues its steady march towards freedom from Covid restrictions, as the vaccine rollout continues. Meanwhile, in the EU, efforts to do the same continue to be beset by difficulties of politicians’ own creation. That man of feeling, Italian PM Mario Draghi, said this week about AstraZeneca, “the feeling one gets… is that these doses have been sold two or three times”. No evidence for this has been presented, as far as we are aware. Meanwhile, in parts of Italy virtually no 70–79 year-olds have been vaccinated as people jump the vaccine queues.
A final unexpected happening this week was the cyber-attack on the BfB website. This was certainly surprising – don’t the Remainers tell us that all the Russian bots are pro-Brexit? Thanks to our wonderful webmaster, everything is now back to normal and subscribers should be able to access the site without difficulties. We have ramped up security to prevent anything similar happening in future.
BfB co-editor Robert Tombs, has written a piece on the death of the Duke of Edinburgh for the Telegraph, entitled ‘Prince Philip wasn’t just a great man, but a symbol of the nation’.
This week The Times has also included Robert’s new book on Brexit, ‘This Sovereign Isle: Britain In and Out of Europe’ (Allen Lane, 2021), on a list of recommended buys as the bookshops reopen.
On the website this week
UK-EU trade rebounds in February, what now for ‘Project Fear’? By Harry Western
Last month we argued that the slump in UK-EU trade in January reflected a variety of factors, many of which were temporary. Early evidence from German and French trade data for February suggests we were right. UK exports to both countries rebounded sharply during the month, to close to the average levels seen in the second half of 2020. A further recovery looks to have occurred in March, too, taking UK trade with France back to pre-pandemic levels.
“Some of the press coverage of January’s data, which gleefully claimed that pre-Brexit catastrophising about trade had been vindicated, now looks embarrassingly wide of the mark.”
Black Lives Really Do Matter, by Nick Busvine
The increasingly acrimonious debate about whether we should or should not adhere more closely to the woke agenda risks not only inflaming rather than easing tensions, but also undermining the quality of public and private sector organisational decision-making.
“No sensible person in this country wants anything other than a fair society that offers an equal opportunity to all.”
Last week Professor Blake summarised the economic cost to Scotland of becoming independent. In this article he lays out the case against independence in more detail including the serious difficulties Scotland will face in attempting to rejoin the EU.
“The idea that Scotland can become an ‘independent’ state within the EU defies the meaning of the word ‘independent’.”
Key points this week
The Protocol is the Problem, not the Solution, for Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland has unhappily seen sustained social disorder this week. The proximate cause of the recent disorder relates to the decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein leaders who attended an illegal mass funeral last summer, and the frustrating effects of lockdown may also have played their part. But pre-eminent in the background is the implementation of the Northern Irish Protocol, which has left Unionists feeling betrayed and hostile.
Against this background, some commentary is breathtakingly obtuse. The EU’s ambassador to the UK, for instance, has bizarrely suggested that the Protocol is the only solution – essentially telling Unionist leaders to shut up and accept the deal they’ve been given. Indeed, it is doubtful if EU leaders more generally understand the basics of Northern Ireland’s fraught history, and even more uncertain if they care beyond its use as a tool to force the UK into SPS alignment.
A number of commentators have suggested that the problem is one of trust – that the EU needs evidence of the UK’s good faith before it can afford to relax its restrictions. As we’ve argued, however, it is the EU’s bad faith insistence on full checks as a negotiating tactic which is stoking tensions. (Incidentally, the claim that the EU was somehow instrumental in creating the Good Friday Agreement, or essential for its working, is simply inaccurate.)
Arguments that the Protocol is essential in its current form rely on the assumption that the EU’s single market must be protected over that of the UK’s – and, implicitly, privilege Nationalist over Unionist sentiment. Though Ireland and the EU have succeeded remarkably well in establishing the normative character of these assumptions, they are fatal for the continued existence of peace in the province. Equilibrium and peace between communities require the perception and fact of fair treatment. If Unionists feel betrayed, then simply ordering them to accept the Protocol represents reckless ignorance.
Similarly, suggestions that NI has somehow benefited from being in the single market when the large part of its goods come from the UK are deeply flawed. That retailers have been able to source goods from within the single market does not mean this process is as efficient, cheap or convenient as would be the case without the Protocol – indeed, listing increased all-Ireland trade as a benefit, at the expense of UK commerce, rather reveals one’s biases.
What, in sum, ought the UK and EU to do about the situation? Full backstop-style alignment for the rest of the UK, which would avoid checks, was tried and failed by Theresa May. As we argue, most sensible would be for the EU to accept the fact that there is little risk to single market of goods entering Northern Ireland, and quietly drop its insistence on physical customs posts, threats of legal action, and high-handed uses of Article 16 at the first whiff of trouble.
If the UK is required to do this unilaterally, however, it should – Article 16 allows for the suspension of checks in the event of significant trade diversion or social disturbance. For the fact is that if the problem is ignored, then tensions will continue to fester, and worse disorders will follow. The government’s primary duty must be to avoid such an outcome.
Key Points is compiled by a Cambridge PhD student.
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An Oxbridge PhD Student
Dr Graham Gudgin
Economist, Centre for Business Research, Judge Business School University of Cambridge
Professor Robert Tombs
Emeritus Professor of French History, University of Cambridge