The chances of the UK freeing itself from EU control improved no end last week. In his first statement to the House of Commons as new Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, commenting on the lost three years leading up to Theresa May’s thrice-rejected Withdrawal Agreement, said that his first step ‘was to restore trust in our democracy’ by implementing the voters’ clear referendum instruction. He stressed that ‘Our mission is to deliver Brexit on 31 October’ and again that we have an ‘absolute commitment to leaving on October 31’.
Of course such undertakings have been heard many times before but as I watched Johnson’s performance at the despatch box I was struck by the energy, passion and will that he exuded, which was in stark contrast to the lacklustre and pedestrian efforts I had witnessed so frequently from his predecessor. In my view, Boris successfully summoned up that essential Churchillian spirit of defiance and determination.
It set me to thinking that many Australian readers may not be fully aware of some of the events that have influenced current Brexiteers to be so resolute in their struggle to see the United Kingdom as once again a democratic, self-governing, independent, nation state. The media more than adequately cover the immediacy of events and personalities but are sometimes a little light on historic detail. The first thing to remember about the EU is that two of its principal founders, Jean Monnet and Arthur Salter, agreed that its aim of becoming a de facto government of Europe should be kept a secret until it was too late to challenge. That is why hardly anyone in Britain understood what membership of the European Economic Community involved when they were taken in by then Prime Minister Heath on 1 January 1973. It was to be simply a ‘common market’ for trading purposes, and the supremacy of Community law over those of member states was explained away as being simply for trade disputes. Neither statement was true, and it wasn’t long before the ‘salami-slicing’ stage (the transfer of powers in incremental ‘slice-by-slice’ fashion) from national parliaments to an unelected European Commission commenced in earnest.
In the early years of Britain’s membership of the shape-shifting entity known first as the EEC, then the EC and then the EU, the taking of power was conducted largely out of public sight or knowledge. But that couldn’t last and by the late 1980s the extent to which Britain had ceased to be a self-governing nation was becoming more and more apparent. Those active in UK politics at that time will doubtless have their own favourite eye-opening moment. Mine was the Factortame cases. These began as an action by a group of Spanish fishermen for judicial review against the UK government, claiming that it had breached EU law by requiring under the Merchant Shipping Act 1988 that a ship registered under the Act must be majority UK-owned.
The background was that the EU had divvied up Britain’s fishing waters and set ‘total allowable catches’ for each member state. Spain, which had the largest fishing fleet in the EU and were in constant danger of exceeding their quotas, found that by re-flagging their ships as British under the old Merchant Shipping Act 1894 they could continue to fish in British waters and have their catch counted against the UK quota, even though they continued to operate from, and land their catch in, Spain.
The case travelled swiftly through all Court divisions to the House of Lords and thence to the European Court of Justice (ECJ) who confirmed the supremacy of rights granted under EU law over any conflicting national law. In Factortame II the ECJ decreed that the conditions for registration of British vessels under the British government’s 1988 Act were incompatible with EU law. Factortame III and IV saw the ECJ rule on the conditions under which a member state may incur liability for damage caused to individuals by a breach of EU law and the case returned to the UK domestic courts where eventually after a hearing before the House of Lords a settlement was reached whereby UK taxpayers had to hand over £55 million ($98.5m) to the Spanish fishermen who had gamed the system at their expense for years and who had been supported at every turn by the EU and the ECJ.
Boris’s task in facing down the seemingly united front of 27 EU member states may appear more daunting than it really is. They will, of course, take the line that they will not re-open negotiations but he will, I am sure, remind them that the alternative of a ‘no deal’ departure becomes more attractive to the UK the nearer we get to the deadline of 31 October. First they would get not a penny of the £39 billion ($69.8b) ‘divorce settlement’ that Theresa May agreed to gift them. Second they would get the benefit of not a single day of the 2-year transition period she consented to; two years in which Britain would be unable to enter into any trade agreement; and two years in which the EU could queer the pitch for any that she had in mind. Third, with the implementation of his ‘full-speed ahead’ program of preparations for a ‘no deal’ departure, Britain need have no worries on that score; the EU exports far more goods and produce to the UK than the other way round so any bottlenecks at the ports or their approaches are far more likely to be on the European side of the Channel. Fourth, an interim policy of maintaining the present nil tariff on imports from her EU trading partners would give the UK the moral high ground and make it exceedingly difficult for the EU to impose tariffs on UK exports, particularly under the watchful eye of German car manufacturers and French agricultural producers.
As for those Remain MPs within the Conservative party who have threatened to bring down their own government if it goes for a ‘no deal’, Boris should remind them that the evidence of the referendum, the recent European elections and his even more recent 2-to-1 victory shows that the voters are in no mood to be messed around any further. He is not only PM but also Leader of the party and in that role exercises power over its Central Office and the selection of candidates. He should make it clear that if any such attempt were made he would call a general election in which only those who signed a binding agreement to vote for Brexit, deal or no deal, would be adopted as Conservative candidates.
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