Can anyone trust the U.K. under Boris Johnson?

“This is a fantastic moment. We can now move forward as one country — with a government focused upon delivering better public services, greater opportunity and unleashing the potential of every corner of our brilliant United Kingdom while building a strong new relationship with the EU as friends and sovereign equals,”

A quote from U.K. Prime Minister Boris Jonson in January 2020, signing the withdrawal agreement that exited the U.K. as a member of the European Union.

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Donald Trump; (Source: Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)

The loss of trust

Now, eight months later, Boris Johnson reneged his earlier signature, by pushing for a bill that will break the U.K.’s formal agreement with the E.U.

If there was one country that has been a model of the Rule of Law, it is the U.K. When I spent six months studying international banking at a seminar held by the Midland Bank, one of the first principles I heard was that in the City of London, “my word is my bond”. Business was handled without the need for extensive written confirmation. In contrast, Boris Johnson wants to overwrite parts of the Brexit deal he signed with the EU in January. He is thereby breaking his word, the law, and the U.K.’s signature in a Treaty with the European Union

Many prominent politicians warned Johnson: “If we lose our reputation for honoring the promises we make, we will have lost something beyond price that may never be regained,” said former Prime Minister John Major. The European Commission’s president Ursula von de Leyen was unambiguous about the issue of trust: “the UK has seriously damaged trust between the EU and the UK. It is now up to the UK government to re-establish that trust.”

The U.K. Parliament vote puts the U.K. in breach of international law

If adopted as proposed, the U.K. draft legislation would violate several EU rules, which were co-signed by the U.K. The government at Downing Street however stated that “the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern-Ireland Protocol, aren’t like any other treaty. It was agreed at pace in the most challenging political circumstances, to deliver on a clear political decision by the British people, with the clear overriding purpose of protecting the special circumstances of Northern Ireland.”

A man of no word, following Trump’s footpath

Boris Johnson obtained the approval of the House of Commons for an amended Withdrawal Agreement in October 2019. This is how he sold it to the House of Commons: “now is the time for this great House of Commons to come together and bring the country together today as I believe people at home are hoping and expecting, with a new way forward and a new and better deal both for Britain and our friends in the EU, and that is the advantage of the agreement that we have struck with our friends in the last two days.”

On September 15, 2020, however, he stated that “a bill that would break international law by breaching parts of the Brexit divorce deal was needed because the European Union had not taken a “revolver off the table” in trade talks”

Abandoning Northern Ireland

While U.K. countries — such as Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — are increasingly taking their distance from Westminster, the U.K. is foolish to abandon Northern Ireland. The new U.K. legislation would override aspects of a landmark Brexit agreement, involving the treatment of the border between Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K., and Ireland, which will remain in the European Union.

Creating a hard border between the two Irelands threatens the fragile equilibrium sealed in the Good Friday agreement that put an end to decades of infighting between Protestants and Catholics of Northern Ireland.

It is the Irish who will pay for the political mess of the most conservative wing of the United Kingdom. Indeed, as Rafael Behr writes in The Guardian: “By reneging on the terms of a treaty negotiated with those institutions, Johnson’s internal market bill inaugurates a new chapter in UK-EU relations. It dissolves the pragmatic foreign policy tradition in an acid bath of Europhobic paranoia. The prime minister justifies the bill’s repudiating clauses on the grounds that Brussels threatens the “territorial integrity” of the UK. He conjures the prospect of a “blockade” — vindictive obstruction of agricultural goods flowing from the rest of Britain to Northern Ireland. It is a depiction too twisted by mendacity to work even as a caricature of the facts.”

The U.K. is not worthy of a trade deal

The “excuses” of the U.K. are nothing short of a breach of trust. How could the European Union justify a trade agreement that could be reneged at any time? Brexit has been a series of betrayals by Boris Johnson in his aspiration for power and to promote a nationalist agenda.

On several occasions, Michel Barnier and the EU leaders have adeptly avoided a confrontation that Boris Johnson was looking for: an opportunity to blame the EU for the demise of a Brexit he promoted for three and a half years. This time they may decide to use their weaponry under the Withdrawal Agreement and the Irish Protocol and sue the United Kingdom for this breach of contract which could ultimately result in financial sanctions. The President of the Commission Ursula von der Leyen even quoted Thatcher at her State of the European Union speech, “Britain does not break treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future Treaty on trade.”

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, clearly indicated that such a breach would annihilate chances of an agreement between the U.S. and the U.K. if Johnson’s actions threaten peace in Northern Ireland. Trump and Johnson have the same characteristic, a dangerous narcissism.

The British motto “my word is my bond” is dead, and with it, the integrity of the U.K. If this is how Boris Johnson wants to be remembered, so be it. Maybe the E.U. should let him follow his course.

Johnson wants the E.U. to take the blame. Don’t give him that excuse. Now is the time of truth for the U.K. In the balance lies the future of the relationship between the E.U. and the U.K.

Written by

CEO at Galileo Global Advisors and Adjunct professor Columbia Law School.

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