The UK will leave Europe no matter what, says new British PM Boris Johnson. But his hard-line Brexit stance is exposing cracks within the UK itself.
By Colin McIntyre
Can the United Kingdom leave the European Union without itself disintegrating?
Boris Johnson took over as the UK’s prime minister last month with a pledge to unite the “awesome foursome” of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
But the four countries that make up the world’s fifth biggest economy are deeply divided over the prospect of leaving the EU.
And the possibility of an abrupt departure, with no agreement between London and Brussels, is fanning secessionist embers in some parts of the UK.
During Johnson’s recent whistle-stop tour of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, there were plenty of signs — including regular booing and heckling — that the Conservative leader faces an uphill task in convincing compatriots that the UK should leave the EU no matter what.
Johnson has promised to take the UK out of the EU on October 31, with or without a deal with Brussels to soften the break-up.
In 2016, UK voters chose to leave the EU by a 52% to 48% margin. But voters in Northern Ireland and Scotland bucked the overall trend and said they would prefer to remain in the 28-nation bloc.
The 2016 poll came two years after Scotland voted in a separate referendum to remain in the UK, with 55.3% against independence and 44.7% in favor of it.
Now, amid mounting anxiety over the possible economic consequences of a “no deal” exit from the EU, some are floating the idea that Scotland should hold a fresh referendum to decide if it remains in the UK.
In torturous negotiations over the past three years between London and Brussels over the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, Northern Ireland emerged as the major stumbling block.
Northern Ireland shares a land border with the Republic of Ireland, which is a staunch member of the EU. So if the UK leaves the EU, the very nature of that border will change — it will no longer lie within the EU but rather demarcate the outer edge of the EU, implying a new series of controls for the movement of goods and people.
For three years, Johnson’s predecessor, Teresa May, tried to get a deal with Brussels passed, but the UK parliament rejected each effort.
Its fatal flaws included keeping the UK in the EU customs union and single market during a transition period — anathema to hardliners in favor of Brexit. She sought a guarantee, favored by Brussels and Dublin, that there would be no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic until permanent arrangements could be worked out.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is keeping the minority Conservative government afloat in London. It sees any strengthening of the province’s ties to the Irish Republic as a slippery slope that could eventually see it joining the predominantly Catholic nation to the south.
But a return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic would violate the terms of the 1998 Belfast agreement between London and Dublin. That agreement, which is sponsored by the EU, ended 30 years of sectarian war and installed a power-sharing government in the province.
As Johnson kicked off his tour with a trip to Scotland, a poll of the Conservative Party’s paid-up members revealed a startling figure: more than 60% said they would rather lose Scotland and Northern Ireland from the union than have no Brexit.
A roughly similar percentage of 160,000 party members — who represent 0.35% of the population — said they were prepared to endure significant damage to the economy to achieve Brexit.
In Scotland, following a noisy reception, Johnson had a frosty meeting with the country’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, who accused him of pursing a “dangerous” hard-line strategy on Brexit.
The UK government has rejected any new independence referendum in Scotland while the Brexit process continues. Sturgeon has ruled out an idea floated by her deputy of holding an unofficial referendum similar to the one called by Catalonia in Spain. Madrid ultimately declared that referendum illegal.
Meanwhile, a recent poll of 1,019 Scots showed that 46% of the population now supports independence, compared to 43% opposed, with the rest undecided.
A tough reception
Johnson’s toughest reception was in Northern Ireland, where he pledged to be impartial in trying to restore the power-sharing assembly that brought together politicians from the Protestant, pro-British majority and the Catholic minority.
The assembly collapsed in 2017 over policy disagreements and a major business scandal. Johnson also committed his government to the 1998 Belfast agreement.
However, Mary Lou McDonald, who heads the leading Irish nationalist party Sinn Fein, questioned Johnson’s impartiality. She noted that Johnson’s government is being kept afloat by the DUP, which voted to leave the EU against the trend.
Johnson brushed aside calls from Sinn Fein for a referendum in Northern Ireland on reunification with the Republic of Ireland. However, in Dublin, Irish Premier Leo Varadkar warned that a no-deal Brexit could increase the prospect of reunification.
Varadkar was asked if the Irish government intended to begin publicly planning for a united Ireland. He said it did not at present, as doing so would be seen as provocative by pro-British unionists in Northern Ireland.
“But in the event of a hard Brexit, those questions do arise,” he said.
Varadkar recalled that under the Belfast agreement, a poll on reunification must be called by the UK government if there is enough proven support for it. The last census in Northern Ireland in 2011 had Protestants on 48% to 45% Catholics.
A final stop
Johnson’s last visit was to Wales, a destination that should have been more comfortable since it voted by 52.5% to 47.5% to leave the EU.
However, on arrival, he was immediately harangued by Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford, who declared he had no mandate for a no-deal Brexit, “which would be catastrophic for Wales.”
Worse was to come a few days later when a by-election in the Welsh region of Brecon and Radnorshire saw the Liberal Democrats overturn an 8,000 Conservative majority to win the seat. Support for the Liberal Democrats — which is committed to staying in Europe — has been surging nationally.
As a result of the by-election, the British government now has a majority of just one seat. With Johnson promising to leave Europe with or without a deal, nobody is putting any bets on whether or how this might happen as the country drifts into unknown waters.
Colin McIntyre led Reuters coverage of the end of communism in Eastern Europe as chief correspondent in the region in the late 1980s. During 34 years at Reuters, he covered the last days of the Vietnam War and was posted to Indonesia, Ireland and London.