Saturday 19 January 2019

Dan O'Brien: A no-deal Brexit is the most likely outcome in March

Both sides in the Brexit talks are not for bending on the Border. A referendum in Northern Ireland might offer a way out, writes Dan O'Brien

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Reuters
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Reuters
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Humiliation is among the most dangerous feelings. When it becomes a factor in conflicts, reason takes a back seat. People will sacrifice a lot to avoid being humiliated. Some more than others.

The British are proud. To a fault. They have a well-developed sense of themselves, and of their country as an actor on the world stage. Collectively, they are as sensitive to being humiliated as they can be insensitive to how their words and deeds affect others.

The advocacy by many leading British politicians of a best-of-both-worlds Brexit for the UK amounted to an expectation that the 27 countries in the EU would be taken for mugs. They would accept the costs as well as the benefits of membership for themselves, but give Britain the benefits without the costs. Countries, like people, don't accept being taken for mugs. Brexiteers have been mugged by this reality.

As this hard reality has ground down delusional expectations of exceptional treatment, the position of the British government on its future relationship with the EU has become more realistic. But it has yet to reflect fully the options available, and the trade-offs that those options involve.

It seems as if the by-now-very-old joke - that there are only two kinds of European countries in today's world: small ones and ones that haven't realised they are small - has not yet done the rounds in London.

Last week Theresa May overplayed her hand when she met her counterparts in Salzburg. They did not take kindly to her demand that her proposals on her country's future relationship with the EU could only be based on her proposals set out in July.

She attempted to by-pass and isolate Michel Barnier, as if he was some inconvenient interloper rather than the person the 27 leaders collectively instruct on their negotiating positions on Brexit.

Despite most of the remaining member countries being well disposed to Britain for a range of historical and self-interested reasons, they reminded Mrs May that she has few cards to play. She has a menu of options she can chose from. It is not for Britain to tell them what is on offer.

More than two years on from the Brexit referendum, the exasperation among the leaders in Salzburg last week was so great that some went too far in their response.

Donald Tusk, the representative of the leaders in Brussels, posted a gratuitous message on social media. Last Thursday the president of France, a country with its own highly developed sense of itself, bluntly and undiplomatically called some members of the British cabinet 'liars'.

Emmanuel Macron duly made the front page of Friday's The Daily Telegraph, a pro-Brexit newspaper. The old enemy was "humiliating" Britain. Inside, its editorial was headlined "Brussels can't beat Brexit with insults". This theme of humiliation was reflected across the British media.

Pride almost always trumps reason. Predictably, the us-versus-them dynamic that has taken hold has made even more moderate types belligerent, well encapsulated by a tweet from Grant Schapps, a usually affable Conservative MP. At the end of the week he wrote: "I'm no Brexiteer (in fact I voted Remain), but we may fast be approaching a situation where our handing over £39bn won't work for us either."

The dire situation in which the most likely outcome at this juncture is Britain leaving the EU next March in a chaotic manner and without a deal is mostly, but not entirely, down to the British side.

The decision by the Irish and EU side last November to demand of the British that they concede the principle that part of their sovereign territory - Northern Ireland - be removed from their customs territory was a major miscalculation. Perhaps it is because Europeans have shared the same customs territory for more than half a century that the significance of the proposal was under-estimated. But under-estimated it was.

Countries do not cede their customs territory to others on demand. Even the most powerful countries in the world do not tell weak ones that, as a pre-condition for a trade deal, the weaker one must agree that part of its territory becomes part of the more powerful country's customs territory.

One can trawl through the annals of the history of the World Trade Organisation for an example of one country making this demand of another. The search would be in vain. Countries do not concede to such demands.

What the EU put on the table at the end of last year was unprecedented. It is remarkable that neither European Commission officials nor Irish diplomats saw how dramatically different this demand was from all else that had gone before. Talk of its "de-dramatisation", Michel Barnier's mot du mois, is nonsense. A demand that is inherently dramatic cannot be de-dramatised.

Northern Ireland will either be in the customs territory of the UK or it will be in the EU's customs territory. The choice is binary. There is no fudging it. There is no half-way house. There is no "special status". Anyone who understands the mechanics of international trade understands this.

When Mrs May spoke last Friday afternoon, she made clear, yet again, that Britain would not cut Northern Ireland loose from its customs territory. She was emphatic about it time after time. While parts of the speech were aimed at a "humiliated" domestic audience, it was also aimed at EU capitals, including Dublin. The message for those who have closed their ears to it for so long is that the British will leave the EU with no deal before they sign up to a deal that would see part of the UK cease to be part of the UK's customs territory.

As Foreign Minister Simon Coveney yesterday continued to insist Britain must sign up to the backstop as formulated by the EU side, an impasse has been arrived at. Because the choice is binary and because both sides have nailed their colours so clearly to the mast, the path back from a no-deal is hard to discern.

Among the few possible ways out could be a referendum in Northern Ireland on which customs territory people north of the Border want to be a part of. It might let Leo Varadkar and Theresa May off the potentially career-ending hook that they are both now on.

The idea has obvious and serious downsides, most notably that it would further polarise an already polarised society, at least in the short term. But allowing the people of the North to decide the matter could legitimise whatever decision is eventually taken.

If both the Taoiseach and the prime minister agreed to the holding of a vote, and agreed to be bound by its outcome, it could prevent the worst possible outcome for everyone next March.

To be clear: a referendum in Northern Ireland is not a good idea. But in a dire situation when there are few good options, desperate measures can sometimes be necessary. A referendum may be the least bad option now.

Sunday Independent

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