June 16th 2021
Soweto Day, now Youth Day, in South Africa – one of the most noteworthy milestones on the very long road to democracy in South Africa. That was the day when the apartheid police murdered some 176 (probably an underestimate) black schoolchildren who were peacefully protesting against the absurdity of having to be taught in Afrikaans when neither they nor their teachers necessarily knew any Afrikaans. As I remarked in my blog entry on June 16th last year, no government has a monopoly on stupidity.
Soweto accelerated the process whereby apartheid South Africa came to be seen by more liberal governments as the polecat of the western world. The circle of eminent political leaders metaphorically prepared to elbow-bump the likes of Prime Ministers BJ Vorster and PW Botha, who would not have been welcomed by the majority of members of a 1980s G7 in the way South African President Cyril Ramaphosa was welcomed this week, steadily shrank to the Thatcher/ Reagan ‘special relationship’.
For all Boris Johnson’s bluster about the success of the G7 meeting in Cornwall and his assurances to the world that the ripples of antagonism from ‘our friends across the channel’ in the aftermath of Brexit had played a ‘vanishingly small’ part in the G7 meeting, it is quite clear that UK, and ‘Britain Trump’ in particular, are in the process of assuming in the 2020s the pariah status with the EU leaders that apartheid South Africa had in the 1970s and 1980s. This is entirely understandable: one prefers not to bump elbows with portly polecats.
The problem, of course, is that the EU is too ‘purist’ and pedantic and isn’t adequately respectful of other countries’ ‘territorial integrity’. Its leaders go in for a wholly unreasonable fetishization of legally binding agreements. Not only do they assume that the leaders of other countries like the UK will have read and understood what the agreements they sign actually mean, but they also fondly imagine that the leaders who sign them will, in doing so, have every intention of sticking to their word. That is generally the way international relations work. But it isn’t the way polecats work: polecats do what they like and cause a stink if anyone gets in their way.
The stink in this instance is wafting over the UK rather than the EU where, to judge by President Macron’s comments, the air seems as clear as the major players are in their determination to play by the rules. The final Brexit deal with all its warts, and its long predicted and unavoidably negative consequences for peace in Northern Ireland, was what Johnson demanded, negotiated and agreed to. It was Johnson who accepted the need for a virtual border down the Irish Sea to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Eire after Theresa May had rejected it. If anyone is to be blamed for not ‘respecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’ – the accusation Johnson and Raab are now hurling at the EU – it is Johnson himself.
Macron’s Parthian shot as he left the G7 was very much to the point: ‘We are respectful, and for a number of years after Brexit we have established certain rules, a protocol agreement and a trade treaty for future relations. We just want them to be respected seriously, calmly and professionally – that’s all…. You mustn’t make the EU deal with certain incoherences that you were well aware of from the beginning.’
Nobody should ever have expected Johnson, egged on by his xenophobic cheer-leaders in the right-wing tabloid press to behave ‘seriously, calmly and professionally.’ He is threatening another unilateral and illegal extension of the grace period that currently allows sausages and other chilled meats to travel unchecked from Great Britain to Northern Ireland but is due to end in two weeks’ time. The EU would be entitled to, and on this occasion almost certainly will, impose retaliatory tariffs seriously, calmly and professionally. The so-called ‘sausage war’ seems likely to escalate; the ‘marching season’ over the summer in Northern Ireland will exacerbate tensions between unionists and republicans; and the incipient violence will intensify. In the long run – and the long run might not be that long – the drift of public opinion in Northern Ireland towards favouring the reunification of Ireland, which is apparently already discernible, will reach a tipping point, and it will be Johnson himself who will be to blame for the very literal destruction of the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. It makes sense, after all, to put as much distance as possible between oneself and a polecat.