Gordon Campbell on Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

Foster-imageWhile his new deal is flawed, British PM Boris Johnson has achieved the impossible by coming up with a formula that (a) significantly differs from the Theresa May deal (b) that scraps the Irish ‘ backstop” and avoids a hard land border on the island of Ireland while still (arguably) protecting the integrity of the EU single market and (c) while (probably) winning the approval of the Europeans.

Sure, he has essentially thrown his Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) allies off the wharf, in that Northern Ireland’s importers and exporters would be tied to a complex web of EU regulations, customs procedures and tariffs for the foreseeable, depending on the destination of their goods. Such troubling details aside, the DUP that currently props up the Johnson government has been deemed to be politically expendable; both now, and after the next British election. To get the deal past Parliament, Johnson is going to have to sell it to a combination of the 21 Tory rebels from whom the whip has been withdrawn, and any stray Labour mavericks (in heavily Brexit electorates) who are willing to defy Jeremy Corbyn. Nineteen Labour MPs recently signed a letter asking their leadership to vote for a Johnson deal that avoided a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Now, they’ve got one.

Currently, Johnson has only about 288 votes more or less locked in. It will be hard to get those extra 32 votes he needs, but not impossible. The Tory rebels won’t like this deal but – and this will probably be a far worse prospect– they will also probably not want to go down in history as the MPs who torpedoed the last and only alternative to a “no deal” Brexit. Moreover, the rebels will also not want to be blamed for sending a Tory PM into the subsequent election in such a wounded state that the outcome could well be a second referendum, and (quelle horreur!) no Brexit at all.

It is that Tory nightmare – Corbyn triumphant, a second referendum, no Brexit ! – that will bring most (or all) of the Tory rebels back into line, and deliver Johnson the votes he need to get his deal across the line. But it will be a close run thing, and the stakes could hardly be higher. Lose the vote and Johnson becomes a footnote to history. Win it, and he will seem unbeatable in the subsequent general election. Johnson would be able to present himself as the conquering hero who held out, outlasted the Europeans and delivered an end to the Brexit ordeal. He could then claim a mandate for a neo-liberal experiment in Britain (on the environment, trade deals, regulatory standards, worker rights, civil liberties etc) likely to make the David Cameron/Theresa May years of Tory austerity look like a walk in the park.

Footnote: Apparently, the Europeans have decided to not rule out an extension of the October 31 Brexit deadline.

This will weaken Johnson’s attempts to confront Parliament with a “my deal now, or the apocalypse” scenario. Arguably, there could be time to vote down the deal, and go back yet again to Brussels for further tweakings.

Footnote Two: What is the formula contained in Johnson’s deal that avoids the backstop? Essentially, it involves a bureaucratic sleight of hand:

Under the agreement…..Northern Ireland would stay in the EU’s single market for goods and the EU’s customs code would be enforced on goods coming from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. “This means that all applicable procedures on goods will take place at points on entry into Northern Ireland and not across the island,” [the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier] said. But Northern Ireland would legally remain in the UK’s customs territory, to allow the Prime Minister to boast the country “whole and entire” had left the EU.

Fooitnote Three: So far, business has been unimpressed with the details of the Johnson deal, which in key respects strikes some industry groups as being worse than the May deal. For example:

The vast majority of the 141 clauses contained in the revised political declaration published by the UK and the EU are identical to what was agreed by Theresa May. But the line in the declaration that “the United Kingdom will consider aligning with union rules in relevant areas” in any future trade talks has been ditched, as well as a clause promising a relationship “as close as possible” to the current arrangements.

An industry source said the changes meant the new agreement was “either the same or worse than the March deal” for goods exporters on every issue. Multiple sources in industry groups and major companies said the new deal gave greater scope for regulatory divergence that would make it more difficult for British companies to sell to their biggest export market.

That regulatory divergence of course, is the portal to the neo-liberal experiment that Johnson has in mind.

Tougher Than the Rest

On the latest UNHCR figures, there are roughly 70 million people in the world right now who have been forcibly displaced from their homes because of persecution, conflict, violence, or human rights violations. Given the threats faced by such people on a daily basis, it has been pretty distasteful to watch two of our senior politicians competing this week over who can strike the toughest pose when it comes to “making New Zealanders safe.”

Get real. Relatively speaking, New Zealand has to be one of the safest places on the planet. Surely, you would think, our existing criminal code and laws on terrorism and surveillance provide us with ample protection already against every realistic external and domestic threat.

Regardless, Justice Minister Andrew Little has been busy this week promoting a Terrorism Suppression (Control Orders) Bill that aims to shore up the nation’s defences. Under the proposed law, the Police would be empowered to seek a High Court control order with respect to any New Zealanders – or other travellers – involved in “terrorist” activities overseas. Implausibly, the Bill’s existence has been rationalised by the alleged need for an added shield to cope with the likes of Kiwi jihadi Mark Taylor, whose slim chances of returning to this country from a Kurdish prison have now all but vanished with the Turkish invasion of Syria. Taylor has been a useful spectre conjured up to justify an exercise in Police overkill.

Not to be outdone, National aims to make the law even tougher by empowering the Police to (a) get lengthier control orders, and to (b) be able to combat the threat from “terrorists” as young as fourteen. (Those climate change kids can be scary.) Back at the Tough Guy Corral, Little initially said he wasn’t going to negotiate with National on the Bill’s key features. After bumping chests, Little and Bridges have agreed to talk over the details on Monday. Little may need National support to get the Bill beyond its first reading, but on Monday, they’ll probably shout out their demands between clenched teeth at ten paces, and ride out of Dodge. We’re going to see a lot more of this kind of muscle-flexing on law’n’order issues during the 2020 election campaign.

The Greens may be a better bet for Little. As mentioned, our existing laws are quite sufficient to enable us to sleep soundly in our beds. If any of these returning Kiwi activists had joined any of the groups cited on the comprehensive UN list of terrorist organisations while they were overseas, they could be prosecuted for doing so, under our current anti-terrorism laws. Contracting out the control order process to the Police – not renowned for their sensitivity in such matters – carries obvious dangers. The only context in which it would make good sense would be if we scrapped the category of “terrorism” altogether and treated it as merely one more category of crime for the Police to intercept, investigate and prosecute. We could save a ton of the money we currently waste on the SIS by doing so.

Little’s Bill has other alarming aspects. As Greens MP Golriz Ghahraman has pointed out, the proposed Bill could end up being used to target anyone labelled a terrorist by other countries. Some regimes routinely accuse their political dissidents – feminists included – of being terrorists. In the eyes of Turkey, all Kurds are terrorists. In Egypt, any independent journalists not already in jail are tarred with the same brush. As written, the Bill would have to rely on the geo-political sophistication of the Police to ensure that genuine dissidents didn’t end up being cast in a negative light and/or hindered in their ability to claim political asylum.

As Gharahman has indicated, the Bill needs to be changed to ensure that human rights safeguards and the potential for legal review (of the Police decisions) get built into the draft. If Little was willing to move in that direction he might yet lock in the votes he needs to get this Bill over its first hurdle.

Going to Extremes

In yoga, the Formidable Face pose requires an advanced back bend and is really, really hard to do. In politics though, the tough guy pose with the formidable face is really, really easy to project, even when it involves a policy backbend. Time and again, the poll numbers confer a blessing on populist extremism, however dodgy the tactics.

This year has offered a clear example. In the wake of the mosque attacks, the government moved (a) to outlaw and (b) buy back legally obtained weapons capable of mass murder. It also imposed tighter conditions on gun ownership. These moderate efforts have been met in some quarters with the kind of extreme, inflammatory rhetoric you’d expect to find in the backblocks of Alabama.

Depressingly, recent polls have shown there have been political rewards – for the Act Party at least – in pandering to the persecution complexes of the nutbar fringe of the Kiwi gun lobby. After spending more than a decade in decline – not even Act’s stance on end of life issues managed to lift its dismal poll numbers – it has been Act’s decision to become the parliamentary voice of the gun lobby that has finally moved its needle upwards in the polls. Some of Act’s rhetoric has come to echo the fringes of the gun fetishizing community. From earlier this week, here’s the Act Party’s lament for that most persecuted of minority groups, the Kiwi duck hunter:

Police Minister Stuart Nash doesn’t care…about your family Mai Mai. He doesn’t care about Kiwi tradition. His only concern is that you can no longer use steel shot [ammunition] , and if you are currently in possession of any, you are a criminal.

“All the tens of thousands of homes across New Zealand that have a few packets of last seasons ammo in them are now the homes of criminals liable to prosecution and jail,….This government is sending a strong signal. No Kiwi sport or legitimate farming or pest management activity that uses firearms is safe. The wholesale confiscation of all legally held firearms and ammunition could soon be upon us.”

Yep, pretty insane. Evidently the Police – the police state will soon be among us! – are the anti-Christ, come to take away all of our guns, and to prise the AR-15s from the grip of the 13 year olds who hold them dear. The Act Party is aiming to ride this crazy train to a destination where – so David Seymour fondly hopes – two or three Act MPs could be voted into office by the outraged gun lobby extremists (and their friends and relations) at election 2020. Niche outrage will always deliver dividends for a certain breed of politician. In the process, it is our wider sense of community that pays the price.

Footnote One : New Zealand has been patting itself on the back for raising its annual refugee intake to 1,500 in 2020. Public housing for around 150 extra refugee families will cost about $32.5 million over three years, the refugee programme will get a $6.2 million boost in operational funding spread over the next four years, and $7.7 million has been set aside to improve and expand the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre. Good, but not even a drop in the ocean.

By contrast Lebanon – with a population of only 6.08 million only slightly bigger than New Zealand – has taken in at least a million Syrian refugees since the civil war against the Assad regime began in 2011.

(Lebanon stopped counting them in 2016.) The Syrian arrivals have come on top of the several generations of hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees that Lebanon took in after the establishment of Israel in 1948. Faced with that comparison….do we really need to devise new ways of handing more power to the Police, in order to deter the ‘terrorists” that are allegedly itching to break into our little gated nation?

Kind of Tough, Tough but Kind

And here’s a song for the tough guys, but sung sensitively…