Friday 6 December 2019

Muddled or not, we're still waiting on May's Brexit plan

Former EU commissioner Michel Barnier. Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
Former EU commissioner Michel Barnier. Photo: John Thys/AFP/Getty Images
John Downing

John Downing

'Say nothing till you hear more."

Ireland's EU Commissioner Phil Hogan cannot resist citing the late singer and folklorist Tommy Makem's pithy and ironic phrase. It summed up the attitude of rural border people in Makem's native Armagh as they tried to deal with various prying authorities from two jurisdictions.

These days, it also wistfully sums up Ireland's rather powerless position as we await Britain's expected opening of EU-UK divorce proceedings in about 10 weeks from now. British Prime Minister Theresa May said yesterday that she would set out her Brexit strategy over the coming weeks in a series of landmark speeches.

Unsurprisingly, she denied suggestions she was "muddled" in pursuing what she called the right relationship with the EU. But if she really believes that, she is among the few who do.

Most people believe her claim that she does not want to show her hand too early merely masks the fact that she still has no plan. In her first interview of the year, Mrs May ignored growing calls from business leaders, politicians within her own party and opposition leaders, for more detail on her strategy for separating from the EU.

She insisted it was not an "either/or" choice between curbing immigration into Britain and doing a preferential deal on trade with the EU.

"What I am saying is that I think it is wrong to look at this as just a binary issue, as to either you have control of immigration or you have a good trade deal - I don't see it as a binary issue," she said.

But the reality is that this is at the heart of the upcoming EU-UK negotiations. Again, her insistence that the UK would not be keeping "bits" of its EU membership post-Brexit is not encouraging for Ireland, north or south.

Most observers say if the UK leaves the EU single market and customs union, then we will have to have a "hard border" on this island. EU officials, including Irish Commissioner Mr Hogan, say Britain cannot have access to its single market of 500 million people without accepting the principle of free movement. They have repeatedly warned Mrs May against trying to "cherry-pick" the profitable parts of their union.

As Mr Hogan points out, the timing of the opening of these Brexit talks in late March is not good. It will come just after an election in the Netherlands which will strengthen the position of the far-right Freedom Party; it will be in the teeth of a French presidential election, where the Front National's Marine Le Pen is threatening; and ahead of a German federal election campaign which will also see gains for the far-right. All of that means that the EU's stalwarts cannot be seen as conceding EU advantages to a Britain busy jettisoning its EU obligations.

As a parting shot, Britain's former EU ambassador, Ivan Rogers, said last week that the London government was "muddled" in its approach to Brexit. Let's recall that these are the most complicated negotiations the UK has engaged in since World War II.

"Our thinking on this isn't muddled at all. What I am talking about is getting the right relationship for the UK with the EU. We mustn't think about this as somehow 'we are coming out of membership, but we want to keep bits of membership'," Mrs May said.

But people in all corners of Ireland want Britain to keep "bits of its EU membership". It is those very bits of membership which offer hope of avoiding a return of the Border.

This is the key challenge which faces the Dublin Government. It must sell its case in both London and all across the EU.

Scotland's First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, described Mrs May's comments as unacceptable and her words summed up the frustration of so many people which has been building since the Brexit referendum result last June 23.

"I don't feel as if I know any more about her negotiating objectives today than I did six months ago, and probably what's more worrying than that, I'm not sure she knows more about her negotiating objectives than she did back then as well," Ms Sturgeon said.

Very similar sentiments were expressed by Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan just a fortnight ago.

Mrs May came to the prime minister's office as a result of that referendum in June. Today, she will try to switch the focus from Brexit to her vision of a "shared society" which protects those families who are "just managing".

But Brexit, so central to the well-being of everyone in these islands, will cast a long shadow over that issue, along with so many others. Her actions in the coming months will define Mrs May's premiership and her place in history.

Meanwhile, Ireland waits to hear more. There was dismay among some EU diplomats about repeated comments from Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the wake of the Brexit referendum. Mr Kenny's insistence that, ultimately, Brexit would be decided by "elected EU governments" rather than the unelected EU Commission, however true such comments may be, was seen as unhelpful.

The reality is that the EU's chief negotiator, former French commissioner Michel Barnier (pictured inset), will craft the first draft of the Brexit terms, and there is no point in being dismissive about his role.

Irish Independent

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