Monday 20 May 2019

Chaos: With time nearly up, our own worst-case preparations look belated


Kiss of the outsider woman: EC President Jean-Claude Juncker greets British Prime Minister Theresa May in Salzburg. Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP
Kiss of the outsider woman: EC President Jean-Claude Juncker greets British Prime Minister Theresa May in Salzburg. Photo: JOE KLAMAR/AFP
John Downing

John Downing

Since the waking nightmare of that early morning of June 24, 2016, when we learned UK voters had opted to quit the EU, we have often been told the Irish Government is "preparing for the worst and hoping for the best" when it comes to Brexit.

Well, we had better hope that far more of those "worst-case scenario" preparations are going on behind the scenes - because what is visible is very underwhelming and, quite frankly, worrying.

None of us wants to see a scenario where the lacklustre Brexit preparations come back to haunt Simon Coveney, as he makes a song and dance about a new website and a Brexit roadshow to warn businesses of a 'no deal' outcome.

Meanwhile, there has been an extremely slow take-up of the Government's much-vaunted €300m Brexit loan scheme for businesses coping with the fallout. Only €2.5m was paid out in three months.

It was only this week the Government began recruiting customs officials for a scenario where some kind of checks and controls appear inevitable, even in one of the more benign Brexit outcomes. Let's bear in mind that major checks on goods going between Ireland and the UK have not happened since 1993. So there is no 'business memory' in the Irish customs service to fall back on here.

The EU leaders' summit in Salzburg yesterday confirmed what we had already known in practice about a small loosening of the tight negotiating timeline. All eyes are still on a key leaders' summit in Brussels on October 19 and 20 - but the real action will come at a long-expected special summit on November 17 and 18, also in Brussels.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he had a "useful" 40-minute meeting in Salzburg with British Prime Minister Theresa May at the informal summit hosted by the Austrian government as current EU presidents.

But we have known for some time that there will be no serious tangling between London and Brussels on a resolution to the Irish Border question until after the British Conservative Party conference which runs from September 30 to October 3.

So, no surprise to hear that 15 days of talks cannot deliver a deal worthy of consideration in Brussels on October 19 and 20. But even with the expected extra grace period, it still means there are less than two months to 'D-day', and little more than six months to Brexit becoming a reality at 11pm Dublin time, or midnight in Brussels, on March 29 next year.

Yes, let us acknowledge that so far the Government has done well in securing EU assurances of solidarity with Ireland. Furthermore, the big obstacles to a reasonable deal are in London where the ruling British Conservatives, dependent on the DUP, are utterly riven.

Against that, Labour, whose leader Jeremy Corbyn is even more anti-EU, will watch their opponents flounder.

But that does not gainsay that our Brexit preparations are poor and belated.

It was only yesterday that Mr Coveney launched a "nationwide public information outreach campaign" aimed at getting Ireland ready for the reality of Brexit. He was joined by Business Minister Heather Humphreys and Agriculture Minister Michael Creed as he cited two aims for this new initiative: updating people on the Brexit talks, and outlining a "comprehensive range" of financial and other supports available to businesses.

There will a "revamped Brexit website" regularly updated and four public outreach "Brexpo" meetings in Cork, Galway, Monaghan and Dublin next month.

These are all laudable moves. But we must ask why it has taken so long for a more holistic approach to dealing with issues which are within our own control.

Irish Independent

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