The Irish Examiner View: UK moves goalposts once again

The Irish Examiner View: UK moves goalposts once again

In the normal course of events, if words always meant what they are supposed to mean, then yesterday's announcement by Britain that it rejects the European Union’s demand for a commitment on competition, environmental and social standards to secure or a free trade agreement would cause something close enough to excitement among the EU negotiators obliged to square the Brexit circle.

When Boris Johnson's government published its 30-page negotiating mandate ahead of talks next week it rejected the idea of a level playing field involving shared standards on state aid, taxation, employment rights and the environment.

This new position, this dismissal of the withdrawal agreement Mr Johnson concluded with the EU just last October, is shocking but hardly surprising. It is hardly the first or second U-turn in his backstory. It is as if Mr Johnson imagines one agreement after another is just a stepping stone that can be forgotten once it has served its purpose.

To facilitate this repositioning Downing Street suggested Mr Johnson regards October's political declaration as having a lower status than the withdrawal agreement, which is an international treaty. Words can mean one thing one day, another thing another day it seems. That clarification was spiced by the suggestion that Britain hopes to secure a Canada-style deal but may walk away from talks in June and prepare for an “orderly” - hard - exit should the bluster not prevail.

These are, as Johnson and his cabinet know, impossible demands - the EU cannot countenance a new, low-regulation, chlorinated-chicken Singapore on its doorstep and will, rightly, do all in its power to block that prospect. Yesterday's position paper raised the temperature but it is just negotiating pitch offered by a mercurial, unreliable leader as much to appease his constituency as to make real progress.

That, from and Irish and an EU perspective, clutching at straws must be balanced by the reality that Johnson's cabinet has shown it is indifferent to basic morality, to basic decency. After all, how else could a cabinet that agreed immigration controls that would have prevented many of their parents building a new life in Britain be described? Are they really so unaware, so indifferent? It is distressing but now plausible to argue that Britain, under the tightening influence of hard right Brexiteers, has assumed the characteristics of a rogue state and an increasingly unreliable neighbour. How very sad.

That darkening has arrived. The first shots were fired at weekend EU budget talks in Brussels which considered how a Bexit shortfall of €75bn over seven years might be addressed. The summit ended without agreement as the Frugal Four - Denmark, Austria, Sweden and the Netherlands - rejected the idea of paying more - a position described by Chancellor Angela Merkel as "childish", French president Emmanuel Macron described it as "arrogant and shocking." How the issue is resolved is uncertain.

It may, however, be unrealistic to hope that our contributions will not increase. Already regarded as one of the EU's success stories and a rich country a Eurostat report shows we have one of the lowest tax burdens in the EU - the third lowest of 28. This may make it difficult to resist a inevitable call for a greater contribution.

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