by Denis MacShane

Former Minister for Europe. His latest book Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain is published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury.


The most famous speech made in the Roman Senate was by Cicero denouncing a political adversary. “How much longer, Cataline, will you try our patience? How much longer will you keep mocking us? When will you stop swaggering about?”, Cicero began.

Britain’s prime minister, Boris Johnson, spent many years studying Latin at Eton and Oxford, and probably knows by heart Cicero’s Cataline orations.

But now it is most elected leaders of sovereign European states and MEPs who are asking how much longer they have to put up with Mr Johnson trying their patience as he swaggers about refusing to abide by the spirit or letter of the two legal treaties he agreed with the EU in 2019 and at the end of 2020 to allow Britain to leave the EU without a total rupture of trade and travel?

The latest move by London is to repudiate its own incessant demand last year that the trade agreement had to be signed and become enforceable at the start of 2021.

European leaders and British business executives begged Johnson to slow down a bit. Britain and the continent were grappling with the Pandemic. Moving the UK’s trade status to that of a third country, like Uruguay or Malaysia, meant 1001 new rules, forms to fill in, medical checks on animals and plants being imported and exported.

Johnson brushed away these concerns and insisted on full speed ahead. A century ago, in 1921, Britain partitioned Ireland, carving out a small region of six counties which were controlled by Protestants who saw the Vatican and Catholic Church as a mortal threat to their identity.

A century later, Johnson imposed a second partition on Ireland when he accepted that for trade purposes the whole of island of Ireland would act as one economic unit following EU trade rules and standards.

This was judged essential by security and intelligence services in London, Belfast and Dublin. Any restoration of the hard border that existed up to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement would see a return to violence as Irish nationalist anti-British forces, more violent and more extreme descendants of the IRA, made clear they would blow up any border or customs posts physically installed on Irish territory.

The Good Friday agreement was only possible because the UK and Ireland were in the same Customs Union. It would have been perfectly possible to stay in the Customs Union while leaving the EU Treaty and Single Market thus avoiding the current problems in Ireland. But Johnson was a Brexit fundamentalist and wanted a total rupture.

Washington under Presidents Obama, Trump and especially Biden who boasts “I’m Irish” to millions of fellow Irish-Americans, insisted there could be no question of restoring the old border. US politicians close to Biden have appeared on Newsnight and Today to criticise Johnson’s latest breach of international law.

The problem quickly arose that goods leaving northern Ireland for mainland Britain now crossed a trade frontier even if they moved within the same state of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

There were delays galore as few businesses either in Northern Ireland or mainland Britain had made the necessary preparations of paperwork and form filling for trade from what was the EU into a third country and vice versa.

There were shortages in supermarkets, confusion and anger amongst business, and very little help or guidance from London.

The hardline Democratic Unionist Party and other strongly anti-EU and anti-Dublin unionist politically motivated groups denounced the de facto border and demanded it be abolished.

But that means tearing up the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement agreed and ratified by the UK  Parliament last December as well as the Withdrawal Agreement and the Northern Ireland Protocol agreed between Johnson and Michel Barnier in 2019.

Now London has unilaterally said it will not honour the agreement and is demanding, again unilaterally, an extension until October. The Irish Foreign Minister and Deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, says the EU is “negotiating with a partner it can’t trust.”

The European Parliament agrees and has said it is suspending the ratification process unless London abides be the terms of the agreed legal text. Now the European Commission will take the UK to the European Court of Justice over Johnson’s breach of international law.

It is almost as if the Brexit camp will not accept Brexit has happened and the UK has left the Treaty. In an explosive book just published the French ambassador in London at the time of Brexit, Sylvie Bermann, one of France’s most senior diplomats describes Johnson as an “inveterate liar.”

Britain has refused to accept that the ambassador of the EU in London should be given the normal diplomatic courtesies that the UK certainly expects its ambassadors to be granted. The Governor of the Bank of England, Andrew Bailey, has accused EU member states of “location politics”. This is the precise description of Margaret Thatcher’s policy in the 1980s and 1990s as she persuaded banks and firms to relocate in Britain in order to get access to the EU Single Market which Johnson now repudiates.

Some see the appointment of David Frost, a mid-rank ambassador who swore allegiance to the cause of Brexit and the ambitions of Boris Johnson after the 2016 referendum as the UK’s new chief official for dealing with the EU as a provocation. Johnson rewarded his faithful serviteur with promotion into the House of Lords and a seat in the cabinet even if Frost has never faced an election and has no political experience other than doing what Johnson wants.

But the grass roots activists who made Johnson the Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister are all devoutly religious in their devotion to a hard Brexit. So is a significant group of Tory MPs who need to be reassured every week or so that Johnson remains as devoted to the fullest rupture with Europe as they are.

This powerful block of anti-EU UK politicians and their supporters in the anti-European press want to create a permanent strategy of tension between the UK and the rest of Europe.

Johnson is taking a huge risk. His non-stop provocations are exhausting the patience of Europe, Trade between Germany and UK went down 30 per cent in January year-on-year. There was a 70 per cent drop in Italian exports in the same period.

Amsterdam’s bourse now trades more shares than the London Stock Exchange. Clearing and derivatives are moving out of London to Europe or New York.

The question now is the same one that Cicero posed two millenia ago. How much longer can the British Cataline, try the patience of everyone else in Europe?