(v.) to fall short in replicating something already done by someone else
Well, well, well. He’s only gone and done it. Apparently.
After a week of frantic into-the-night renegotiations, a plume of white smoke finally puffed its way up from the Brussels skyline early Thursday morning. Rumour has it, from a burning pile of three years’ wasted paperwork. A new deal outlining the UK’s—and, more knottily, Northern Ireland’s—future relationship with the EU post-Brexit has at last been finalised. So what shape does this new arrangement take?
Well, this was a last-minute deal, so the finer details are understandably a little sparse. Not quite so sparse as the requisite translations into all other EU languages that will be needed for the agreement to be ratified by the EU Council, of course, but still sparse. There were some main talking points, however—most notably, those involving the entirely democratic “undemocratic” Irish Backstop.
Gone is Theresa May’s troublesome Irish border solution, replaced with a system that keeps Northern Ireland aligned with EU regulations for at least four years, starting from the end of the transition period next December, with a rolling veto handed over to Stormont. Think that idea sounds familiar? DING DING DING! You’re quite right—that’s an arrangement the EU had already suggested back in September 2017. Ah, sunrise, sunset…
Maintaining what Number 10 now describe as a “substantial regulatory alignment” between Northern Ireland and the EU, however, means that—in Michel Barnier’s words—it will now act as an “entry point into our Single Market.” And if you think that sounds familiar, then DING DING DING! You’re on a roll! In fact, that’s essentially the Irish Backstop, just re-manoeuvred from a temporary fix to a permanent future state. As Jonathan Powell (former Chief of Staff to Tony Blair, and an early architect of the Good Friday Agreement) succinctly put it on Twitter, “The funny side of the No 10 claim they have got rid of the backstop is that they have in fact transformed it from a fallback into the definitive future arrangement.”
Not that this new agreement is all rushed and recycled ideas, of course. Number 10 are reportedly now committed to ensuring that there be “no customs and regulatory checks or … related physical infrastructure at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.” That means that all regulatory EU customs checks will in future take place outside the island of Ireland, in ports and airports acting as points of entry. It’s intended that this system would eventually be replaced by an online system of customs pre-declarations—but until then, Boris Johnson’s arrangement now effectively establishes a hard UK/EU border down the Irish Sea.
And—last one, I promise—if you think that sounds familiar? Well, DING DING DING! You’re three for three. Because that’s exactly the same arrangement that Boris Johnson explicitly disavowed only in July of this year, when he told an audience of Northern Irish Conservatives that, “Under no circumstances … will I allow the EU or anyone else to create any kind of division down the Irish Sea.” It’s almost as if you can’t believe a word he says.
So Boris Johnson’s new Brexit deal is essentially Theresa May’s old Brexit deal, only with the Backstop now centre stage; considerable concessions made to the EU; a hard border down the Irish Sea that nobody wants; an additional undesirable removal of workers’ rights and environmental and quality control standards; a lack of fine print; and only 90 minutes debating time in a Saturday sitting of parliament. All of which brings us to this week’s Word of the Week.
There is a word for attempting to emulate what somewhat else has already done, and failing hard. It is to undermimic, a word first recorded in 1847 according to the OED, but feeling especially pertinent this week. Lest we forget, a Withdrawal Agreement—readily ratified by the EU27—was already on the table, but Boris Johnson has managed to tear that up and renegotiate a new deal that not only breaks his own explicit avowals from just three months ago, but has both alienated his party’s much-needed Westminster prop-up, the DUP, and uniquely united Nigel Farage with most Labour, SNP, Lib Dem and Green MPs in opposition against it.
Will it pass muster in the Commons? In these times, who knows, and the parliamentary arithmetic already looks tight. What will happen if it doesn’t? Again, who knows? But this all sounds very, very familiar…
Illustration by @Bread_and_Ink