Brexit: Boris Johnson's 'to be or not to be'

PM decides to either swallow his pride and accept EU proposal or take a leap of faith

It seems that betting indexes in the UK have already decided that from January 1st the relationship between the British Isles and the European Union (EU) will be governed by the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). In other words, the agreement still being sought in Brussels at this stage will not be a reality at the end of the day, when both parties have to decide whether to opt for the minimum compromise or the breakaway one.

Only a week ago, betting indexes indicated that that a no-deal only had a 17% chance of being imposed. The day before yesterday, Friday, it was already trading at 61%, and the day before that, at 53%. Do betting indexes get it right? It's impossible to say. They were wrong about the Brexit referendum. The number of small bets from the north of England was underestimated. Attention was drawn to where the volume of money was, which was much higher in the south of the country, where London and the City are remain territory, and where the financial interests of the vast majority of bookmakers made it predictable that the opposite would happen.

Yesterday was the first anniversary of Boris Johnson's victory at the polls. The premier swept away corbynism, a force that had begun by giving hope to very young people and that ended up becoming entangled and drowning in the tory web of Brexit, its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, unable to impose a credible voice of his own with which to combat the English nationalist demagogy that lies behind the divorce from the European Union.

Tory criticism

Johnson was accused yesterday by the former chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Patten de Barnes - former governor of Hong Kong - of this precise type of nationalism. With his comments, and those of other prominent Members of Parliament, such as Tobias Ellwood - a former military man and former Secretary of State for Defence - they criticised Downing Street's position of threatening to defend British fishing grounds with Royal Navy vessels if there is no agreement.

The decision was greeted with great enthusiasm by the most reactionary press: "Gunboats to protect our fish", headlined the Daily Express. According to sources at Irish Radio Television, such verbal aggression did nothing to improve the mood of EU negotiators. In Brussels, however, they are already used to tabloid headlines. Johnson's own simplifications are harder to swallow. During the election campaign, he did manage to get a few in. For example, he used effective but false and populist slogans such as: "Let's finish Brexit", as if doing so were a piece of cake, or "We have a deal ready to bake". Three hundred and sixty-six days after his great triumph, BoJo, as the more servile press calls him, has to make a decision that will mark the rest of his term and the lives of nearly seventy million people.

Just as Johnson fantasized when he spoke of a near-ready trade agreement, he also lied when he pledged that there would never be a customs house in the Irish Sea. Deal or no deal, from January 1st there will be controls in the port of Belfast to inspect goods arriving to the province from Britain.

The reason for this is that, thanks to the Northern Ireland protocol - the Withdrawal Agreement -, Ulster will enjoy different conditions from the rest of the country. They will be even more different if there is no deal. Because the same protocol, designed to avoid a hard border on the island between north and south, ensures that the British province continues to enjoy tariff-free access to the EU's single market. This also means that for goods arriving in Northern Ireland, the Union's customs rules will have to be applied to its ports. Therefore, there must be controls, which Johnson said he would never allow. The result is that from Northern Ireland goods will flow in the direction of the Republic and the rest of the EU as they do now without any customs controls, tariffs or other formalities. The economic absurdity of Brexit is demonstrated when, in the case of not reaching a deal, many industries from Great Britain might relocate to Northern Ireland to benefit from a different tariff regime. And the political absurdity for the integrity of the United Kingdom is even more serious. Without a compromise, the province's dynamic as the situation consolidates will be to move closer to the EU and away from London.

For these reasons and countless others - from security arrangements to queues and chaos at Dover, which have been going on for days now - the decision Johnson has to make is existential. Like Hamlet's: it may be quite painful to kneel to the demands of the EU after so much talk of sovereignty and independence, but it will be much more painful not to do so and take a leap of faith. The uncertainty that opens up, and they know this perfectly well, is comparable to that of death.

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