British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MIKHAIL SVETLOV
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Picture: GETTY IMAGES/MIKHAIL SVETLOV

Boris Johnson won the last election in part because he could say on what terms he would leave the EU and his opponents could not. He had an “oven-ready” deal. Yet the agreement Johnson secured with the EU was one his predecessor, Theresa May, had rejected because it split Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, placing the province in the regulatory orbit of Brussels. The prime minister knew this because he had made the same criticism. Last autumn, cornered by his own logic but desperate for a deal, Johnson signed up to a dud agreement.

The damaging consequences of his choices are threatening to capsize EU-UK trade talks. Johnson’s solution is to go back on the deal he had negotiated. The impression is that his words are not worth the paper they are written on. If this was allowed there could be no confidence that the UK would stick to its side of the bargain in any trade arrangement. A Britain that reneges on international agreements can hardly lecture rogue states when they do the same.

In Europe, trust in Johnson is evaporating fast. He has sought to manufacture a crisis by suggesting he could rip up agreed texts if he doesn’t get what he wants by mid-October. This appears naive and irresponsible. Johnson’s problem is that while boasting of ending years of “vassalage” by Brussels, he agreed to constrain the UK’s sovereignty in the withdrawal treaty.

According to well-sourced reports, the prime minister claims his government’s efforts to regenerate the economy using state aid could be stymied by EU rules. This is true. Johnson knows this because he signed the UK up to the EU’s state-aid regime — in cases where subsidies “affect trade” in goods between Northern Ireland and the EU — as a quid pro quo to allow the province to maintain frictionless trade with the bloc, and to avoid a border on the island of Ireland. The government plans a new bill to eliminate the legal force of parts of Johnson’s deal, but this will be ineffective in the face of international law. /London, September 7

The Guardian

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