In almost every domestic policy area during the pandemic – including social care, levelling up, protecting public health and the economy – the Prime Minister’s actions have failed to match his words. His failure to secure G7 action on the global vaccine rollout, the climate crisis or anything else of note adds a grim international dimension to his incompetence.
The division between Johnson, EU leaders and Biden – who made his position in support of the Protocol and his concerns for the Good Friday Agreement clear – lies on a single foundation: EU leaders and Biden respect the rules based international order, while Johnson does not.
This reality – long evident in Johnson’s approach to Brexit – was made stark at the G7. It puts the UK in a new position on the world stage. Formerly trusted and seen as an exemplar of order and the rule of law, Johnson is showing that our word can no longer be trusted.
One reason for Johnson’s failure to build a sense of shared endeavour was the barely submerged anger from US President Joe Biden and European leaders at his failure to implement the Northern Ireland Protocol, the agreement he struck to resolve the need for a border between Britain and the European Union..
The EU, not unreasonably, expects the UK to fulfil its obligations under the Protocol. Instead, Johnson has unilaterally delayed implementing some measures (notably a ban on the export of chilled meat) and is threatening to delay still further. More arguments are inevitable as grace periods expire, requiring more checks.
The EU has given Johnson two options;
- Implement the Protocol
- Agree to align with EU food and agriculture rules in full (the Swiss model) or in part (following New Zealand and Australia).
Johnson refuses to align, arguing to do so would be incompatible with Brexit. The ‘equivalence’ option he favours – whereby the two sides agree their standards are the same in merit if not detail – is unacceptable to the EU, which argues that since the UK wants to diverge, its future standards may fail to meet those of European nations. The result is stalemate.
For Johnson Brexit does not just mean freedom from EU rules, it means freedom to ignore the international rules based order that is the basis of Šefčovič and Biden’s appeals.
This leaves the UK in a strange position on the world stage. We remain a member of the G7, G20, UN Security Council and a host of other agreements and forums. Yet under Johnson we are increasingly moving away from the values and norms that are their foundation.