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EU hopes new British leader could mend fraying ties

Europe Letter: Johnson government has already set damaging precedents in international relations

This year marks the world’s 16th year of democratic “recession”, according to the organisation Freedom House, which monitors the spread of autocracy and the erosion of checks and balances on power worldwide.

The administration of Donald Trump in the US illustrated how quickly democracies can be damaged, through its undermining of confidence in the electoral system and the norm of the peaceful transfer of power.

In Europe, independent observers of Hungary’s election this year revealed the deeply unfair fight any opposition faces to unseat Viktor Orbán, who is now deeply entrenched after using his 12 years in power to suppress independent media and blur the lines between his party and the state.

The damage of political influence on the judiciary and rule of law, like many autocratic acts, takes far longer to fix than to inflict.

In the European Parliament this week, a series of MEPs described the British government’s proposed legislation to override the Northern Ireland protocol as a breach of international law.

One Portuguese politician said it was unusual such an act to come from what he described as “one of the oldest, most venerable diplomatic countries”.

The Fianna Fáil MEP Barry Andrews listed a string of dubious acts by the British government since 2019, from the prorogation of parliament to the Internal Markets Bill.

“In the United Kingdom the stigma against breaking international law, domestic law and constitutional norms has been significantly eroded since Boris Johnson became prime minister,” he said.

The damaging precedent represented by its Northern Ireland Protocol Bill for international relations was apparent from the outset.

It was justified by foreign secretary Liz Truss according to the so-called “doctrine of necessity”, when a state is compelled to breach an international treaty because one of its essential interests is in imminent danger. But two conditions required by this doctrine were not met: it was neither the only possible course of action, nor harmless to other parties.

If this version of the necessity doctrine was the norm in international relations it would be the end of a stable world, emboldening any state to take any action it deems essential, irrespective of agreements with others.

The damage inflicted on international norms is not theoretical. Last week, the Chinese embassy in Ireland pointed out the precedent for Hong Kong.

On its Twitter account, the embassy shared a quote by Johnson saying “25 years ago we made a promise to the people of Hong Kong. We intend to keep it,” with the mocking text: “Two years ago we made a promise to the Northern Ireland protocol. We are determined to break it.”

The British government has also proposed to limit the reach of the European Court of Human Rights, something with potential implications both for the Belfast Agreement and the UK’s trade deal with the EU, as both are underpinned by adherence to the court’s underlying treaty, the European Convention on Human Rights.

An illustration of the broader implications of a sovereigntist rejection of international human rights law also came last week.

On June 15th, the British government criticised an urgent interim measure by the European Court of Human Rights that blocked the deportation of an asylum seeker to Rwanda until the case could be considered by domestic courts.

Just two weeks later, the same court issued another urgent interim measure, this time to halt the execution of two British citizens who had joined Ukrainian forces and had been sentenced to death in a breakaway pro-Russian region of Ukraine.

The obvious question was why Russian authorities should respect such a ruling with regard to British citizens, if the British government itself dismisses rulings it dislikes.

Among potential successors to Johnson, Truss is seen as the most committed to the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill and the most likely to see it through parliament.

The rapid rapprochement of the US with the EU under the Biden administration demonstrates how quickly relations can be mended under new leadership and with will on both sides – albeit, with a lingering anxiety about what future administrations could bring.

Despite everything, the UK’s path is still seen as a deviation from the norm in the EU, and there remains hope, perhaps even an expectation, that it will return to form as a reliable state in international relations.

This was reflected in the address of the European Commission vice-president and Brexit point man Maroš Šefčovič to parliament.

“Our door remains open for dialogue,” he said. “It is now for the UK to walk through that door.”