by Frank Schnittger
Tue Oct 2nd, 2018 at 03:44:02 PM EST
August is traditionally termed "the silly season" in the northern hemisphere anglophone media because that is the time when governments, legislatures, and their associated media handlers are on holidays, and newspapers are stuck with having to make up their own news. Many editors keep a stock of non-time specific stories which they can use to fill their column inches and keep their punters entertained on the beach or wherever else they feel an urge to keep connected to "the real world".
In the UK, the silly season often extends to the party conference season in late September/early October just ahead of when Parliament, the Courts and the Universities traditionally emerged from their summer hiatus. It probably dates back to the time that September was the harvest season, and no one could be expected to be away from their country estates until the crops were safely garnered in.
And so we have the Labour Party conference where Corbyn continued his slow dance of moving to the political centre, supporting a second referendum as a decidedly second choice to his preferred option of a general election to put the Tory government out of it's Brexit misery. Now we have the Tories disporting themselves in their patriotic red white and blue colours, declaring their undying love for the Union, (the UK, that is) and telling Jonny foreigner where to get off.
It is time for the EU to get realistic, apparently, and put forward an alternative to the Prime Minister's absolutely fabulous Chequers proposals. You couldn't make this up...
Pat Leahy, political correspondent of the Irish Times (in an email circular) begins by offering some free advice:
If you are a Minister or a Taoiseach dealing directly with Brexit (Yes, Messers Coveney, Donohoe, Varadkar) or a senior official guiding the ship of state in the background or a journalist trying to make sense of the British position or indeed a concerned Irishman or woman who pays attention to these matters: do not, on any account, tune in the Conservative Party conference, currently under way amid Birmingham's ancient arches and dreaming spires.
It will not do your mental equilibrium any good, and as we are all tediously advised these days, you must mind your mental health, whatever that means.
Symptoms of exposure to the Tory conference include holding your head in your hands and sobbing, banging your head against a wall or shouting "BUT THEY ARE THE ONES LEAVING" and "THE NORTH IS DIFFERENT, THAT'S THE WHOLE POINT OF THE GOOD FRIDAY AGREEMENT" at passing strangers. Should you find yourself experiencing any of these symptoms, on no account should you share your feelings, or attempt to talk to someone about it. Just shut up and get on with things.
Apparently, Dominic Raab, offered the EU this sage advice:
Britain is willing to listen to "alternative ways" of delivering Brexit as negotiations with the European Union move into their final phase, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab has told the Conservative Party conference. "If the EU want a deal, they need to get serious. And they need to do it now," he said.
The Irish Times feels constrained to counter:
It's usually wise to treat the overblown rhetoric of party conferences as theatrical "noises off", fodder for an excitable rank-and-file. But when a foreign minister speaks, even to party loyalists, the world listens.
What then are we to make of British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt's preposterous and offensive comparison on Sunday, echoing the reactionary leaders of Poland and Hungary, of the EU to the Soviet Union, a "prison" whose inmates are punished for trying to escape. Describing the EU's Brexit approach as an attempt to "keep the club together" by punishing "a member who leaves", Hunt asked: "What happened to the confidence and ideals of the European dream? The EU was set up to protect freedom. It was the Soviet Union that stopped people leaving.
"The lesson from history is clear: If you turn the EU club into a prison, the desire to get out won't diminish. It will grow and we won't be the only prisoner that will want to escape."
Prisoner? Yet the door is open. You are free to leave any time, Mr Hunt. Go, and take your baggage with you. But the trouble is that you don't want just to leave. You want to retain all the rights of those remaining incarcerated - free lunches, participation in communal training, the right to sell your wares in the cellblocks unhindered ....
And then there's the small matter of your other commitments. Like that to Ireland and a frictionless Border - there's your insistence that when you make a choice to leave the EU, it is the EU, not you, which must change its rules to accommodate your obligations to your own citizens.
At a time when negotiations with partners are particularly sensitive, with 10 days to the crucial October summit, one might expect tact and sensitivity would be the order of the day for a country's senior diplomat. Yet your comparison with the Soviet Union could not be calculated to be more offensive to states that remember that regime only too well, to leaders like Angela Merkel who emerged from that system. "Open a history book from time to time," the European Commission's spokesman suggested politely yesterday.
As Baiba Brae, Latvia's ambassador to Britain, tweeted: "Soviets killed, deported, exiled and imprisoned 100 thousands of Latvia's inhabitants after the illegal occupation in 1940, and ruined lives of 3 generations. The EU has brought prosperity, equality, growth, respect. #StrongerTogether." The EU will take no lectures from a Tory minister on protecting freedom.
And Hunt is not the only Tory playing dangerous conference games. Prime minister Theresa May's repeated insistence in recent days that the EU has yet to explain its objections to UK proposals is patent nonsense.
It is also verging on a level of bad faith that bodes ill for any prospect of agreement.
As if that were not enough, Arlene Foster, Leader of the DUP has also been attending the Tory conference, speaking of her admiration for Boris Johnson, and having this to say about the Good Friday Agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland even though it was opposed by the DUP every step of the way:
DUP leader Arlene Foster has said the Belfast Agreement should not be considered untouchable in Brexit negotiations.
Speaking to the Daily Telegraph, Mrs Foster said it was not a sacrosanct piece of legislation.
She said: "It has been deeply frustrating to hear people who voted Remain and in Europe talk about Northern Ireland as though we can't touch the Belfast Agreement.
"Things evolve, even in the EU context."
Mrs Foster also said she wanted to see more focus on the positives of Brexit.
"I think the reason why so many people are turned off by Brexit is because they are being fed a diet of negativity - whether it's infighting, Brussels, being disrespected by people over there.
"We haven't been able to talk about the aspirations for the nation [because] we've spent so much time arguing about what's happened, is it going to be a disaster for Ireland in inverted commas, instead of actually focusing on what we can achieve in the UK with the Brexit negotiations."
She's right about one thing: No one has been able to articulate the benefits of Brexit for Northern Ireland, mainly because there aren't any. But fear not: Boris Johnson is about to address the conference today, and he is a noted scholar on all things Irish. NOT.
Mrs Foster was speaking ahead of the Tory party conference where Boris Johnson will use his speech to issue a clarion call to activists to "believe in Conservative values".
In what will undoubtedly be seen as a pitch to replace Theresa May as leader, Mr Johnson will not only restate his opposition to the prime minister's handling of Brexit but call on Tories to focus on law and order, tax cuts and house-building in order to defeat Labour.
As Mrs May celebrated her 62nd birthday, Mr Johnson was pictured jogging through a field near his Oxfordshire home, in a photo apparently designed to mock the prime minister's famous memories of "running through wheatfields" as a mischievous schoolgirl.
Mrs Foster praised Mr Johnson's "belief" and "spirit" and said she'd be happy to work with him as prime minister.
It should be noted that the Tory Party is formally named the "Conservative and Unionist" party, but its links are traditionally more with the anglophile "Ulster Unionist Party", not with the Paisleyite Free Presbyterian DUP traditionally more closely associated with Scottish "planters" of Presbyterian stock: I.e. people who emigrated from Scotland to take over lands confiscated from Irish Catholics who failed to aligned themselves with the British crown.
So while all the talk now is of an alignment between the DUP and the Tory party, this is an alignment strictly for short term politically expedient pragmatic motives. Culturally, there is little love lost between them, which may also explain why Arlene Foster has not been slow to speak well of Boris Johnson at a time when any such comments might not go down well with any remaining Theresa May faithful.
For some reason the EU27 is supposed to take all this guff on the chin as one would indulge a 4 year old engaged in a petulant screaming session. The EU27 are expected to re-engage in talks next week as if none of this had happened, or if it did, that it was purely for domestic consumption. We shall see. There is every prospect of the Brexit talks going completely off the rails, such has been the emotional gulf which has opened up between them at this late stage in the talks, at a time when negotiators are usually engaged in trying to minimize the the remaining gaps between opposing positions.
Once the conference and silly season is over, next week, Theresa May is expected to unveil her bright new, shining, proposals for the Irish border. Various reports suggest this may include renewed attempts to kick this whole issue into the post Brexit transition period, enabling the UK to blame "EU intransigence" for failing to agree "friction-less trade" in any post Brexit situation resulting in a hard Irish border; giving the currently defunct Northern Ireland Assembly a role in deciding on any "regularity divergence" between the UK and N. Ireland, which might result in some customs controls "in the Irish sea"; and agreeing to full regularity alignment between the UK and EU pending the development of technological solutions to avoiding customs controls at the border. Somehow it is always up to the EU to develop an alternative workable solution.
As Fintan O'Toole notes in the Irish Times, the UK has had many years to develop such "technological solutions" to avoid a hard border between the British territory of Gibraltar which is outside the Customs Union, and Spain, and yet has failed to do so. And that is with a territory with just one border crossing, whereas there are 208 official crossings between N. Ireland and Ireland, and an infinite number of unofficial ones.
But no report entitled "the silly season" would be complete without repeating Boris Johnson's epic contribution:
In a speech which delighted an audience at the Conservative Party conference, Mr Johnson called for no new taxes and extra health service spending while the room erupted into cheers when he said Mrs May needed "to chuck Chequers," as her Brexit proposals are known.
With just six months before Britain leaves the European Union, Mrs May's precarious position at the helm of her party has been further shaken by criticism of her plans, both at home and in Brussels.
Mr Johnson, who became the figurehead for the campaign to leave the EU, has been one of her loudest critics.
"Do not believe them when they say there is no other plan and no alternative," Mr Johnson told the hundreds of Conservatives who queued to get a seat in a 1,500-seat conference hall.
"This is the moment to chuck Chequers," he said. "If we cheat the electorate, and Chequers is a cheat, we will escalate that sense of mistrust."
Mrs May's team had hoped the party's annual conference would hand her a platform to revitalise a pledge she made when she became prime minister in 2016 to help those people who are "just about managing" and try to steal the initiative from Labour.
But the conference has been dominated by Brexit, with eurosceptic lawmakers attracting hundreds of Conservative members to their events on the fringes. Only handfuls turned out to hear ministers' speeches in the main hall.