Brexit and Ireland: Joe Biden is Wrong

A Union Jack and European Union flag at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, in 2016. (Yves Herman/Reuters)

The British government violated an international agreement, but Biden and the Democratic Party are ignoring history.


fter a spring and summer dominated by the pandemic and the lockdown, the U.K. and the EU are back to fighting about Brexit. In other words, nature is healing.

The latest fracas between the two feuding divorcées involves the British Internal Markets Bill, which was introduced by Boris Johnson’s government last week. The purpose of the bill is to ensure barrier-free trade between all four constituent nations of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) and to guarantee that other countries have access to the entirety of the U.K. market when they cut trade deals when the British government.

Americans are likely to greet this news with bemused puzzlement. How is all of this not already the case? After all, free trade between the states has been the sine qua non of American nationhood since the ratification of the Constitution in 1787. In fact, the regulation of interstate commerce was the primary role envisioned for Congress by the Founders. Furthermore, trade deals signed by the Federal government have always embraced the whole of the American market. How can a nation-state even exist without these basic building blocks of national sovereignty?

The answer is that it can’t. For the last four and a half decades the United Kingdom hasn’t been a nation-state at all. It’s been the provincial, western outpost of an aspiring Federated European super-state. Ever since the U.K. entered the European Union, EU law and jurisprudence has been supreme over domestic law. Regulations, customs, and trade standards have been set by the EU institutions in Brussels and imposed upon every country in the bloc. In other words, the customs and market regulations that are a foundational prerogative of functional nation-states have been usurped on the European continent by a supra-national pan-continental bureaucracy. Napoleon Bonaparte would be proud.

But now that the U.K. is bidding farewell to this ill-conceived and ill-begotten project, the British government has to resume control of its internal market regulations, which is what this bill does. It merely restores to Her Majesty’s government the plenary domestic power over trade and regulation that almost every other government in the world takes for granted.

So, why all the fuss?

The problem, as ever in these negotiations, is Northern Ireland. It’s the only part of the U.K. that shares a land border with a member of the EU — the Irish Republic. The Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which put an end to the decades-long civil conflict in the province between Protestant unionists and Catholic secessionists, established an open border on the island of Ireland so that people and goods could travel seamlessly between North and South. This was a rather easy measure to implement because both the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland were in the EU at the time, and so they were bound by the same customs and market regulations.

The sticking point in the exit negotiations between the British and EU delegations was how to maintain an open border in Ireland once the U.K. had left the EU regulatory framework. Differing regulations and standards between the two countries could, without any physical border infrastructure, lead to rampant smuggling and undermine the internal integrity of the EU market. But all sides balked at the idea of putting up a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic given the violent history and still-volatile politics surrounding the constitutional question. Sinn Fein, the political wing of the Provisional IRA terrorist organization, made thinly veiled threats (as they are wont to do) that if such an option was considered, we could see a return to mass-murder on the streets of Belfast.

And so, after becoming prime minister last year, Boris Johnson signed on to a Withdrawal Agreement that left Northern Ireland within the economic structures of the EU. All EU regulations on trade and customs would continue to apply in Northern Ireland even after it had legally left the EU along with the rest of the U.K. Essentially, this amounted to a regulatory annexation of sovereign British territory by a foreign power (ably and obligingly aided by the British prime minister).

Of course, this was never going to work in the long term. No government can function properly when a huge swath of its territory is in chattel to a foreign power. How could the American federal government enforce regulations equally in Texas and Tennessee in a scenario where Texas was obliged to conform itself to the internal market regulations of Mexico?

The prime minister never should have signed the Withdrawal Agreement, and many of his colleagues told him so at the time. But he was desperate to get Brexit officially and legally over the line, and so he punted on how exactly the government would make all of it work.

Last week, with the introduction of the Internal Markets Bill, the rubber hit the road. By the British government’s own admission, the bill violates the Withdrawal Agreement signed onto with the EU, albeit only in “a very specific and limited way,” in the words of Northern Ireland secretary Brandon Lewis. Specifically, it violates Article IV, which establishes the Agreement’s supremacy over U.K. law. The British government has taken this measure because they want their own ministers to decide what goods arriving in Northern Ireland from Great Britain should be subject to EU customs checks. In other words, the government is reasserting its sovereignty over Northern Ireland now that the U.K. is safely out of the EU by deliberately violating international law.

Boris Johnson has said that the measure is “protective” in nature, and necessary because of the way that the EU has tried to “leverage” their regulatory conquest of Northern Ireland in trade negotiations with the British government. During these negotiations, it is alleged, the EU has threatened to ban the sale of British agricultural products in the EU. This action would, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, involve banning the importation of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. You read that right: According to the British government’s chief negotiator David Frost, the EU has threatened to impose an internal food blockade within the United Kingdom between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Faced with what they clearly view as an insulting ultimatum, the Conservative government decided to violate the agreement they had wrongly signed up to in the first place.

And this is when the Democrats jumped in. As my colleague Madeleine Kearns has outlined, Nancy Pelosi was the first to suggest that the British government’s decision threatens the “Good Friday Accords,” which, incidentally, do not exist. There is a Good Friday Agreement, to be sure, but, as far as I am aware, no sequel exists to warrant Pelosi’s use of the plural form of the noun. The probable cause of her error is ignorance. But in any case, it looks like Joe Biden has decided to join her in giving the party line:

It cannot be said often or loudly enough that equating the measures in the Withdrawal Agreement with the enforcement of the Good Friday Agreement is completely unsupportable. Biden and Pelosi are wrong on this issue, and predictably so. The Democratic Party has always viewed Ireland through the eyes of their Irish American voters, who in turn view their ancestral homeland in an attenuated, folkloric, and often ahistorical way. NORAID, or the Irish Northern Aid Committee, was a hugely popular organization among Irish Americans during latter half of the last century. Its members exerted massive political and financial influence over American policy in Ireland and put millions of dollars into the pockets of organized murderers. This was not, to be sure, out of any knowing or deliberate malice. The ignorance afforded by distance allowed many Irish Americans of good faith to draw a simple analogy between George Washington and the Minute Men on the one hand, and Gerry Adams and the IRA on the other. They little suspected that the “freedom-fighters” whom they funded were in the habit of abducting and executing disabled children.

Joe Biden is famously proud of his Irish roots, so it’s likely that he has inherited this Irish American preference for romantic myth over gruesome reality to some extent. But if he would care to look more closely at the issues in question, he would learn that the European annexation of Northern Ireland was never necessary in order to preserve peace in Northern Ireland. In fact, it amounts to a far more egregious violation of the Good Friday Agreement than the Internal Markets Bill.

First of all, the EU is well aware that the necessary technology exists for frictionless trade to continue between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic even under two entirely different regulatory regimes. The EU Parliament published an entire study in 2017 detailing how this could be done. The study is called “Smart Border 2.0: Avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland for Customs control and the free movement of persons,” and is publicly available. The EU’s aggressive stance towards Northern Ireland is not born of any concern to avert the need for border infrastructure. It has always been political. Dominic Raab, the current British Foreign Secretary and former Brexit negotiator, said as much in an interview for the Sunday Times in 2018. Raab is hardly a neutral observer, but the account of a man who was at the center of negotiations cannot be dismissed out of hand:

There were certainly swirling dark forces in the commission, which you would hear rumbling that Northern Ireland was the price the United Kingdom must pay for leaving the EU . . . That’s totally irresponsible and reckless and not something we should give in to. The EU has become incredibly controlling and I think that’s a sign of their insecurity as an organisation.

In addition to the dishonesty and irresponsibility of the EU’s feigned pretext for claiming Northern Ireland as its own, it also needs to be pointed out that the Withdrawal Agreement itself actively threatens the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement. The legal basis for Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom is the 1801 Act of Union. Article VI in the Act of Union created a Customs Union that still encompasses the six counties that make up Northern Ireland to this day. Furthermore, one of the central commitments made by all parties in the Good Friday Agreement is that no change to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland will be permitted without the democratic consent of the majority. If violating the Act of Union does not change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, then nothing does. Contrary to what Joe Biden seems to believe, the Good Friday Agreement has already been flagrantly violated by the European Union, with Boris Johnson coming in clutch in an ignominious assist.

On top of all this, the EU isn’t in a position to lecture anyone about the sacrosanct inviolability of international law. As the former conservative member of the European Parliament Daniel Hannan wrote yesterday for Conservative Home:

The EU, for example, is in breach of several trade agreements, ranging from its groundless bans on overseas agricultural produce to its illicit Airbus subsidies. It also frequently violates its own treaties, sometimes on issues of enormous consequence. The eurozone bailouts, for example, were patently illegal, not just in the sense that they had no basis in the European treaties, but in the sense that they were expressly prohibited. No one in Brussels tried to claim otherwise. Rather, they pleaded raison d’état.

The British government violated an international agreement. But they did so in order to remedy the previous violation of a far more important agreement, one that has brought an end to violence in one of the most ravaged and war-torn corners of the modern world.

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