Professor Chris Grey’s Brexit analysis on how the Channel migrants panic links back to the 2016 Referendum and forward to post-Brexit international co-operation, IDS et al’s ‘Millwall’ approach to diplomacy, and the US and Japan trade deals.

First published in August 2020 | Updated in September 2020.

Last week’s headlines about migrants seeking to cross the channel served as a reminder – not that it should ever be forgotten, still less forgiven – of the way that the more general migrant ‘crisis’ (in scare quotes for a reason) of 2015 was weaponised in the 2016 Referendum campaign. Of course, as with their economic claims, Brexiters have now deemed it politically incorrect to even suggest that migration and immigration were central to their case (which, we are now expected to believe, was all about Edmund Burke’s theories of sovereignty).

The official Vote Leave campaign confined itself, relatively speaking, to dog whistles, most notoriously in the implications of the, in any case untrue, claim that Turkey is joining the EU, and the linkage of this to Syria and Iraq. Nigel Farage and UKIP, by contrast, were happy to blow the hunting horn, as with their hideous ‘Breaking Point’ poster. Indeed, cynics might say that the two campaigns were not so unconnected, and that Farage acted as an enabler for the official campaign to keep itself relatively clean whilst reaping the rewards of that which they ostensibly disavowed.

At all events, between them the two campaigns exploited the refugees both directly and also by the wholly dishonest conflation of freedom of movement, immigration in general, refugees and asylum seekers (for more detail on this aspect of the Referendum, see this article by Dr Amanda Garrett of Georgetown University).

The current bogus panic about cross-channel refugees also has Farage lurking sweatily in the background as for some months now, like a censorious suburban curtain-twitcher newly equipped with a bus pass, he has been hanging around beaches and hotels in his grubby mac trying to whip up talk of an “invasion” – talk which then all too predictably crossed over into the mainstream. Farage – who let’s not forget no longer holds elected office and heads a basically defunct party – may have done more to pollute British politics than any other politician of his generation but, as ever, the government are more than happy to splash around in his fetid cesspit.

Less control, not more

In this way, there are direct parallels between Brexit and this current “artificial emergency”, and polling evidence shows a clear relationship between views about the two, but with a new twist. For what this latest episode brings into focus is that Brexit, far from allowing Britain to take back control, is likely to make the situation much more complicated. This is because, as Professor Steve Peers explained in an excellent blog last week, within the tangled maze of international law and conventions about refugees and asylum seekers, the EU’s Dublin rules provide part of the framework to address this issue.

To very briefly summarise (as so often, it’s a complex issue, so do please use the links to get a fuller picture), Peers explains that the oft-quoted idea that those seeking asylum are obliged to do so in the first safe country they reach is bogus (and there are often good reasons why they do not). However, amongst its participants, the Dublin rules do often assign responsibility to that country, even if asylum has been sought elsewhere in the EU. In practice, this often provides the basis on which some of those relatively few asylum seekers who reach the UK are returned to France and elsewhere which, apparently, is what Brexiters want (the idea of any obligation either to the people themselves or to other countries not being a prominent feature of their moral universe, and indeed, reading posts on social media, the idea of refugees being people at all seems to be beyond some of them).

Yet that and other EU provisions will be lost to the UK at the end of the transition period. It may be that the UK and the EU agree something similar (or, even, better) but it is by no means clear that this is in prospect – or even that it has been the subject of substantive discussion – and Peers concludes trenchantly that as regards asylum seekers “the effect of Brexit may be ultimately to reduce UK control of migration, not increase it”. Equally, the idea that Brexit will miraculously free the UK from the Dublin rules to do more advantageous bi-lateral deals on refugee return with individual EU member states “seems extremely implausible” according to Professor Jonathan Portes. But in the tautological theology of Brexit, any EU rules are seen as suspect so it becomes an article of faith that leaving them will be ‘liberating’.

How (not) to make friends and influence people

It does not follow, as is being widely said on social media, that Home Secretary Priti Patel talking about the need for co-operation with France is in and of itself a further indication of the folly of Brexit. After all, there have been bi-lateral agreements with France about refugees even whilst the UK was an EU member. But it does serve as a reminder that international problems entail international co-operation in general and, in this case, constructive relations with France in particular, which have hardly been aided by Brexiter rhetoric, such as Boris Johnson’s ill-judged and offensive remarks about ‘World War Two punishment beatings.

Nor is the cause of co-operation well-served by the current headlines about Patel issuing ‘ultimatums’ to France, or about the ‘outrage’ of France seeking financial contributions to its control of the border. As with the Brexit negotiations, antagonistic messages that may be designed by the British media and politicians solely for domestic consumption are seen and heard abroad, and inevitably sour international relations. Not just France but Germany, Ireland and Spain have all been subjected to repeated insults during the Brexit process. It would be foolish to think that this has no effect, or that it can make co-operation with such countries (over refugees or anything else) anything other than more difficult.

Patel issued ‘ultimatums’ to France over the Channel crossings. / Flickr – Number 10

Post-Brexit, Britain risks becoming friendless as a stark new YouGov survey shows and, even on the Brexiters’ own ‘Global Britain’ reckoning, will need to become adept at neat diplomatic footwork in order to avoid isolation. But such footwork is alien and, even, anathema to this Brexit government, which would prefer to blunder bullishly around the diplomatic china shop so as to pander to its core vote – and its own antediluvian party and parliamentary membership - than do anything that might actually be construed as being in the national interest. It’s yet another example of this Vote Leave administration permanently re-fighting the leave campaign rather than governing. The effects on Britain’s well-being, let alone its international reputation, are of course irrelevant to these Brexit ‘patriots’.

An article last week by a senior former diplomat, David Hannay, underscored just how damaging this approach is proving to be for the trade negotiations with the EU. The British government, he argues, is acting in a way which is “unprincipled” and is destroying trust. This is principally because of the way that the Political Declaration (PD) has effectively been treated by the UK as totally irrelevant whereas it had been signed with the EU on the understanding that it constituted a shared framework (I would add that this has come on top of repeated ways during the Article 50 negotiations that the UK behaved in an untrustworthy manner, principally when the phase 1 agreement was disowned). This, Hannay, argues, is damaging not just to the prospects of a trade deal but to Britain’s more general need to build friendships abroad including with European countries.

No one likes us, we don’t care

If the government is already reckless of such considerations, the Brexit Ultras are as always urging an even more irresponsible and dangerous course with their now growing clamour against not only the PD but the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) itself. This of course would be even more serious: in rejecting the PD, Britain is breaking its word but if it rejects the WA it breaks an international treaty.

I wrote about this last week, with links back to how it has been in prospect ever since the 2019 Election, despite the ERG voting for the agreement. Last week has seen yet another salvo in the Express from Iain Duncan Smith against the WA (which was nicely taken down by, again, Steve Peers), as well as a report in the Sunday Telegraph which headlined the bizarre suggestion from an unnamed source that the WA was ‘not worth the paper it was written on’. That accusation is usually made of an agreement the other party can readily ignore, and so is a strange thing to say of one which you propose illegally to disown.

But that is hardly the strangest feature. Whereas last week Duncan Smith was talking about things “buried in the fine print” of the WA now – perhaps stung by the many criticisms of him for having apparently voted for something he didn’t understand – he loftily declares (in the Telegraph piece) that “everyone knew this stuff before” but voted for it so as to be out of the EU and able negotiate as a “sovereign nation” (inevitably, it has not sunk in that had Britain not been a sovereign nation it couldn’t have signed the WA anyway). Similarly, in his own Express piece he writes of his “surprise” that his comments of the previous week were a “revelation” (even though he had presented them as just that) and claims that the WA “was always a work in progress” rather than, in fact, an international treaty. He clearly doesn’t realise, or perhaps just does not care, that this is an even more indefensible position since it implies that he and his ERG cronies acted with deliberate bad faith rather than simply incompetence.

I won’t add to what I have written before about this latest piece of Brexiter duplicity and irresponsibility, with its potential to take Britain to international pariahdom. As noted last week, it will be repeated endlessly in the coming months so there will be plenty of opportunities to analyse it then. In any case, repeatedly pointing to its flaws is largely irrelevant: its purpose, probably already achieved, is to persuade the Brexiters’ base that the WA can and should be repudiated.

Even on the most charitable interpretation that it is designed as a signal to Boris Johnson not to make ‘concessions’ in the EU trade negotiations it will already have done further damage to Britain’s reputation – again, the British press is read in other countries. But, increasingly, the Brexit Ultras resemble those Millwall fans who used to chant no one likes us, we don’t care, although possibly even this credits them with a greater degree of self-awareness than is warranted by the evidence.

Boris Johnson takes his dog Dilyn for a walk in the grounds of Chequers as he encourages people to exercise for a better health. / Flickr – Number 10

The art of the deal?

Meanwhile, trade negotiations with non-EU countries continue – sort of. A shouty headline in the Express (interestingly now changed to something much more anodyne, but see the original here) reported the “Brexit DISASTER” that talks with the US had been delayed, with the growing possibility that they would end up being held under a Biden presidency if Trump loses the November elections. This wasn’t actually news to anyone following the news. But its prominent discussion in such a rabidly pro-Brexit ‘newspaper’ has its own significance in the gradual falsification of all the promises made by Brexiters to its readers.

The idea of a UK-US Free Trade Agreement has always been held up as the iconic economic prize of Brexit (even though its actual economic effect would be very small). Moreover, it has been an article of faith to Brexiters that Trump would facilitate a good, quick deal in contrast to Obama’s much-resented ‘back of the queue’ warning during the Referendum campaign. That, too, was highly unrealistic given Trump’s capricious nature, not to mention his avowed ‘America First’ position (though, by the same token, the substance of talks with a Biden administration wouldn’t necessarily be any different).

So as early as July 2017 The Lord Jones of Birmingham, better known as Digby Jones, the fanatically pro-Brexit former head of the CBI, with all the august dignity we expect from a Peer of the Realm bated “remoaners” that a trade deal with the US was “in the bag”. More seriously, in September 2019 Johnson and Trump were reported to have agreed that a deal would be done “in lightning quick time by July [2020]”, explicitly to precede the Presidential elections (albeit that at that time Trump looked likely to win).

It is in that context of over-blown promises that imparting the news to Express readers that they won’t be kept is important (I assume the subsequent significant change to the headline was because they were infuriated by the original – or someone was). And it can hardly be blamed on coronavirus given that this is not seen as an adequate reason to extend talks with the EU. Nor, given the previous emphasis put on completing a deal this summer, can it be seen as anything other than sophistry to now claim, as Liz Truss did at a House of Lords Committee last month, that setting a target date is being avoided to deny US negotiators the benefit of time pressure.

Liz Truss in an awkward photograph in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. / Flicrk – Number 10

But the UK-US negotiations have another role within Brexiter mythology. According to former Brexit Secretary David Davis – the man of whom it can fairly be said that he gets everything about Brexit wrong – they would provide leverage in the talks with the EU. Shanker Singham, the Brexiters’ favourite trade guru, agreed that the London-Brussels-Washington “game theory” triangle would put pressure on the EU. It was a highly dubious proposition, which has shown no signs whatsoever of coming true but, in any case, it is now dead in the water since negotiations with the EU – which resume next week – must finish by (in fact before) the end of the year.


On the subject of doing deals, the other Brexit story of (passing) interest last week is the supposedly soon to be completed trade re-negotiation with Japan. This is reported to be snagged on last-minute differences over market access for Britain’s Stilton cheesemakers. Trade negotiation experts have explained that such hold ups over apparent trivialities are more the norm than the exception and no doubt they are right.

At the same time, it is hard to resist the thought that this particular row has a special piquancy as it will be Britain’s first post-Brexit trade deal and the government desires to demonstrate that it can achieve more favourable terms for British interests than those of the EU-Japan deal. And, moreover, to do so in relation to an iconic British product.

If successful, it will be more headline fodder for the core voters but – as with the entire ‘sovereignty’ schtick – will in any substantive sense be meaningless. For, economically, it is only of symbolic value (British sales of blue cheese to Japan last year totalled just £102,000) but, then, as with the US talks, the whole point about an independent trade policy is not the ‘trade’ part but the word ‘independent’. Still, like the issue of fisheries, which it closely resembles in that respect, it is at least a rich source of cheesy puns.

My modest contribution is to point out that the whole thing is crackers, and half-baked crackers at that.

I don’t just mean the Stilton story.🔷


Check their Voting Record:

🗳️ Nigel Farage

🗳️ Priti Patel

🗳️ Boris Johnson

🗳️ Iain Duncan Smith

🗳️ Joe Biden

🗳️ Donald Trump

🗳️ David Davis

[This piece was originally published in The Brexit Blog and re-published in PMP Magazine on 19 August 2020, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay.)

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