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Why Boris Johnson is picking fights over Irish borders, Rwandan flights

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Just days after narrowly escaping a historic domestic defeat, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson now finds himself fighting two battles on the global stage. But while his plan to scrap key parts of a post-Brexit deal with the European Union and a concurrent push to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda are both fights with foreign foes, they are motivated by homegrown promises to his base to “take back control.”

The hairy situation also shows that Johnson, whose lockdown-breaking during the pandemic earned him the dubious prize of being the first sitting prime minister found to have broken the law, is perhaps still skeptical about things like boundaries and rules. If Johnson can’t fight international law, he surely thinks he can fudge it.

The irony in Britain’s fight against the European Union over the Irish border is that the rule it seeks to break is one of its own making. Johnson’s government negotiated and signed the Northern Ireland Protocol as part of the 2020 E.U.-U.K. Withdrawal Agreement. On Monday, Britain announced it would unilaterally pull out of parts of that agreement — sparking a backlash from E.U. officials who said Britain was breaking international law.

As that scandal rolled forward, Britain pushed ahead with its controversial plan to fly asylum seekers to Rwanda. But that plan hit a standstill Tuesday, as a series of individual U.K. court rulings pulled passengers off the first planned flight before a last-minute ruling from the European Court of Human Rights grounded the flight altogether.

This all came just a week after Johnson survived a vote of no confidence by his fellow Conservative Party lawmakers. Even though the prime minister survived, he is weakened. It is an enormous fall from grace for a prime minister who won a historic landslide election less than three years ago. It seems a strange time to go to war.

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But these battles over the Irish border and flights to Rwanda are not just a distraction. Johnson’s Brexit promise was all about “taking back control” for the British. Both situations give Britain a foreign bureaucracy to wrest control away from.

In the case of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the E.U. plays the foe. Johnson and British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss have blamed Brussels for not renegotiating the protocol even as it leads to political anger from Northern Ireland’s unionists. The British government now argues that the Good Friday Agreement, the peace accord that ended the three-decade violence of the Troubles, is at risk because of the protocol.

But it was Johnson himself who brushed aside the complaints of its historical ally in Belfast, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), to reach the deal with the European Union in 2019. E.U. officials like Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney say the British government is trying to “deliberately ratchet up tension with an E.U. seeking compromise” by unilaterally rewriting the agreement.

The E.U. on Wednesday announced it would restart legal action against the British government for this move, which it said broke international law. “Let’s call a spade a spade, this is illegal,” European Commission Vice President Maros Sefcovic said. So far, there have been only shrugs from the British government.

Meanwhile, Johnson’s plan to send asylum seekers and other adult immigrants who make it to Britain’s shores to Rwanda for processing was designed to deter the desperate and dangerous voyages being made across the English Channel in tiny rafts. Home Secretary Priti Patel had said it would break the “business case” for smugglers who preyed on these vulnerable people.

But with the European Court of Human Rights stepping in, there’s now another foreign bureaucrat to fight — and again, the problems are coming from the old enemies in Europe. Among Brexit hard-liners, there were calls to pull Britain out of the court, with one member of Parliament reportedly writing in a private WhatsApp group: “This is effectively a war now.”

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It’s more complicated than that, however. Despite its name, the European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with Brexit or the E.U. Instead, it is the international court of the Council of Europe — a 46-member body that was created after World War II at the prompting of Johnson’s own idol, Winston Churchill, with the aim of creating international standards of law.

Britain did not exit the Council of Europe nor the European Convention on Human Rights with Brexit. The idea has not been seriously entertained before this week. The only nation to leave the Council of Europe is Russia, which was pushed out (despite its own efforts to leave) after the invasion of Ukraine this year. Not great company for Britain.

And while many agree that the Northern Ireland Protocol is imperfect and needs fine-tuning, Johnson’s moves to abruptly pull out of key parts of it ignore the political realities on the ground.

Unionists like the DUP, who support closer ties with the rest of Britain, have ended up divided and weakened after Brexit, and now refuse to allow a government to form. But Sinn Fein, which seeks to unify Ireland as a republic, has become the largest party in Northern Ireland — and is leading polls in Ireland itself, too. Sinn Fein supports the protocol — the majority of the public in Northern Ireland do, according to most polls. Johnson’s actions have boosted the party.

There’s more. While Johnson’s allies complain about the European Court of Human Rights, there is a fundamental tension if they really care about the Good Friday Agreement: the text of that agreement explicitly references the European Convention on Human Rights. Pulling Northern Ireland out of it would breach the peace accord that Johnson claims to be protecting.

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Johnson’s blustering charge may actually be a retreat. After months of bruising scandal that led to the no-confidence vote, Johnson has returned to the buccaneering Brexiteer policies that appeal most to his core Conservative base. But times have moved on.

As the Financial Times’ John Burns-Murdoch reported last month, concerns about immigration may have driven the Brexit vote, but since Britain exited the E.U. the number of immigrants to the U.K. has continued to rise while concern about migration has gone down.

There’s also no great clamor across the U.K. to change the Northern Ireland Protocol. John Curtice, a leading pollster and a politics professor at the University of Strathclyde, recently noted the lack of interest or even understanding of the issue seen in polls. “Northern Ireland may have been the thorniest issue in the Brexit debate, yet it seems that that status is not reflected in the level of concern or division among voters in Great Britain,” Curtice wrote in May.

Can populism work when the policies aren’t popular? Johnson’s foreign battles may soon show the answer.

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