If you sit in any courtroom pretty much anywhere around the world where minor offenders are held to account for their misdemeanours, pretty quickly you will inevitably hear the defence offered that the perp “didn’t know what they were doing”.
Any magistrate worth his salt and who has heard the excuse time and time and time again, will rightly remonstrate that ignorance is not a defence, and hold the blackguard to account for his irresponsible and illegal actions.
If only the principles of common justice could prevail when it comes Brexit. And right now, eight months into this thing, we are now at the stage where the government of the United Kingdom is offering up that tired and jaded defence: It didn’t know what it was doing when it came to signing the Withdrawal Agreement with the European Union.
And yes, quite frankly, it is not convincing.
For months now, the UK has been complaining that the Northern Ireland Protocol is unworkable. The British-government province across the Irish Sea is suffering from shortages of some food stuffs, meat and dairy products being moved from the island of Great Britain are facing checks to make sure they meet EU standards, and there is growing political unease — which has spilt over into street violence — in the Loyalist communities that want Northern Ireland to remain an integral part of the UK.
But that boat has long sailed.
As part of the Withdrawal Agreement gleefully signed by Prime Minister Boris Johnson — “oven ready” he quipped at the time — he knowingly and wilfully agreed with Brussels to draw a customs border down the Irish Sea. The effect of that was to keep Northern Ireland in the European Union customs area, subject to EU law and checks — while the rest of the UK left and became free from Brussels’ restrictions and rules. And as far as the EU are concerned, the UK is now classified as a “third-country” status. If the Brits had voted to remain in the EU, they would have free movement — but we all know how that turned out.
And if the British negotiators had opted to remain in the European Economic Area — like Norway, Iceland of Lichtenstein, they too would have had free access and no checks.
But they didn’t. They rejected those options. Just as they rejected the option offered throughout by Brussels during three years of negotiations to place the customs border on the border with the Republic of Ireland, as long as they kept the province generally aligned with EU law.
Those negotiations resulted in Theresa May-era withdrawal agreements that were rejected three times by the UK parliament before she was deposed. And along came Johnson who promised to get Brexit done. And in his cavalier approach — yes, because the mess now was fully predicted — he agreed to instead place the customs border down the Irish Sea.
And from that day forth, he set Northern Ireland apart. He weakened the structural economic and political integrity of the ties that bind together England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into that United Kingdom.
Now, eight months on, when the consequences of the Conservatives’ actions are plain for all to see — the Johnson government is complaining that the Northern Ireland Protocol isn’t working, and now blames Brussels for its failures.
It is completely wrong.
And now London wants to negotiate that Withdrawal Agreement.
Imagine buying a car, paying your money and driving it for eight months. Then out of the blue the dealer calls up as says, hey, we need to agree to renegotiate. That in essence is what London wants right now.
Sure, the withdrawal Agreement does allow for discussions on the Protocol, but those talks have been ongoing for the past few months as Brussels worked with officials in the UK and Northern Ireland to iron out potential wrinkles. Grace periods have been extended, some practical solutions have been put in place on the ground. But at the end of the day, a deal is a deal is a deal.
David Frost, the UK minister responsible for Brexit issues, has said that without a major change to the legal text of the protocol, London will consider triggering article 16 of the EU-UK agreement to suspend parts of the deal. Such a move would be permitted where it can be shown that “serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties” are arising. But the European Commission — the cabinet-like structure that oversees the day-to-day operations of the EU — would probably challenge such a decision. It would be likely to go to arbitration, raising the risk of trade sanctions down the line.
Not for the first time in the era of Boris Johnson, the UK may seem to undermine its long-standing reputation for upholding the rule of law and its backing of international treaties. Now, by trying to rip up the Withdrawal Agreement, it is denigrating its international reputation. And that is no glory.
Any defendant who goes to court, is contrite and apologetic, hold his hand up and says “I made a mistake, I was wrong” will inevitably end up with a far lighter sentence.
The court of public opinion, however, can have more severe consequences, and the jury may still be considering charges of political duplicity.