Back-pedaling on the backstop: Boris and the blame game

Europe's World

Citizens' Europe

Picture of Dharmendra Kanani
Dharmendra Kanani

Director of Insights at Friends of Europe

Britain’s new Prime Minister Boris Johnson clearly prefers soundbites over policy details. With a new mandate focused primarily on emotion, and in preying on the vulnerabilities of people and communities, Johnson is fundamentally reframing the Brexit debate.

What can be said of the first few days of Johnson’s premiership? Pay attention to the carefully crafted set of messages about how he intends to make things happen. Think about the many times he has repeated the ‘no ifs, no buts’ and ‘it’s do or die’ platitudes.

More significantly, take heed of the phrase that has been adopted by his new cabinet – one that describes the Northern Ireland backstop as ‘undemocratic’. Let’s look at this from a number of vantage points.

First, as a cabinet minister in Theresa May’s government, he made no reference to the backstop being undemocratic. For that matter, neither did many of his other colleagues, of whom Dominic Raab stands out as a notable example.

Secondly, by calling it undemocratic, he plays into the negative narrative he constructed alongside fellow Brexit architect, Nigel Farage. This serves to perpetuate the belief that Europe is somehow denying the United Kingdom’s sovereignty, denying the sovereignty of its Parliament and, ultimately, its democratic right to make choices and decisions about its own future.

The EU did not invent the backstop

Thirdly, why is it that there is very little response from the EU about the new framing device being employed by the UK’s new PM? It is clear that when the UK became a part of the EU, a key feature of membership would be a single market that crosses national boundaries and enables trade to take place, not to mention the free movement of goods and services, including people. So, when the UK decides to leave the EU through a referendum, surely it becomes apparent that in the event of departure, borders would re-emerge between the UK and other EU member states? Ireland is a member of the EU ergo a border would have to be reinstated.

This logic seems to be lacking from the current Brexit discussions. In a high-stakes messaging war, Johnson is bluntly placing the blame on Europe and again using the same approach and rhetoric he exhausted during the Brexit referendum, which is to lay the problem firmly at the door of the EU. The issue here is that there seems to be an absence of clarity in terms of an EU response to the issue.

The EU did not invent the backstop; it is essentially a last resort option designed to maintain a frictionless border. Yet it appears that much of Boris Johnson’s messaging has achieved currency both in terms of how the media refer to it and how people and communities relate to it, especially those who had voted to leave.

Brexit is not actually in the hands of the EU, but rather in the hands of the UK

A key message to Michel Barnier and the EU is to up their game and their messaging so that it is clear to all those involved in this messy, political, egotistical discussion that Brexit is not actually in the hands of the EU, but rather in the hands of the UK. It is imperative that the EU gets ahead of the curve and makes itself visible, not least to ensure that disinformation is effectively curtailed. It’s high time that the EU ‘muscled up’ in the late stages of this Brexit debacle. Otherwise, the history books will depict the EU as culpable for not correcting wrongs in the political debate and spelling out what it ultimately means to leave the union of your own free will.

Does Boris Johnson’s narrative of a beleaguered UK on the cusp of a new renaissance really resonate with the majority of the public? Is it anything other than a British pastiche of Trumpism in its promise to make Britain great again? Let’s not forget that Trump has given his blessing to the newest member of his tribe of economic protectionism. Eurosceptics are determined to exploit the current tensions and vulnerabilities of the EU-27. Let’s not underestimate them.

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