Wednesday 22 May 2019

With so many scenarios still at play, it's hard to know where Brexit will land

British Prime Minister Theresa May with a prize-winning shire horse named Tumble at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show. Photo: PA
British Prime Minister Theresa May with a prize-winning shire horse named Tumble at the Royal Welsh Agricultural Show. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

That old sardonic country adage - "worse, it's improving" - keeps recurring when you think about Britain leaving the EU. Two years after the vote result in June 2016 and very little has changed - bar the reality that everything continues to get worse.

But over its 61-year existence the European Union has a huge track record, when the chips are down, for making deals. Those deals are often "two-minutes-to-midnight" jobs which are deeply imperfect.

But like an old creaky bicycle, many of those deals somehow continue going the roads.

So, what do we know about where this Brexit carry-on might be going to land? Let's review some options based on what we know and what we can guess at. Brussels diplomats close to the action, or the inaction to be more accurate, will tell you there are about half-a-dozen scenarios.

Curiously, the one rated most likely - though the "likely bar" is set rather low - is that Theresa May will batter through with a version of what she is currently looking for. That would be a "hard Brexit", with Britain outside the EU customs union and single market, and would hit Ireland very hard.

It would mean some kind of high-tech north-south Border controls, probably what Irish Commissioner Phil Hogan calls a "cyber Border". But the bulk of Irish food exports to Britain could be safeguarded.

Next in line of likelihood is a "no-deal crash out" on March 29. That would be carnage for Ireland, and indeed for Britain, with big fallout for all of the other 26 EU member states. If the British government, and the ultra-Brexiteer Conservatives, do not soften their stance this outcome could be hard to avoid.

Away from those two scenarios, the likelihood rating dips considerably.

There is the prospect of a limited free-trade agreement comparable with the EU's arrangements with Canada. The UK would be outside the customs union and single market. Again it would be very tough stuff for Ireland.

Then we come to one favoured by very many Irish people: Britain reverses its decision taken by 52pc to 48pc on June 23, 2016, and opts to stay in the European Union. The Irish Government has twice put its voters to rethink their attitude to referendums on EU issues.

In October 2002 the EU Nice Treaty, which had been rejected in June 2001, was put to a second vote and passed. Similarly, in October 2009, voters reversed their rejection verdict on the EU Treaty of Lisbon delivered in June 2008.

Now the two experiences did smack somewhat of "we'll keep ye votin' until ye get it right". But against that, turnout was much higher on the second occasion in both referendums, and the winning margins were convincing.

Clearly, those who had successfully campaigned for a No each time were enraged. But since then, there has not been any popular revulsion.

The British situation is, however, more complex. Referendums are much rarer occurrences there and the country has a long-standing suspicion about the EU project.

It is clear a Brexit reversal does need a vote - be it another referendum, or a general election fought mainly on that issue. It is also probable a Brexit reverse would be more likely to happen if the deadline of March 29, 2019, was extended. That requires the unanimous approval of the other 27 EU governments, some of whom would need convincing that it was worth prolonging all this instability.

But such a delay could allow the UK to very belatedly have the debate it should have had in spring 2016, with the employers and unions spelling out the consequences of leaving not just the EU, but also the single market and customs union. One seasoned Brussels watcher puts that outcome as a 10-1 shot - possible but rather unlikely given all that has gone before.

Where does all this leave us? Realpolitik suggests we will see some kind of British vote on the Brexit terms.

It may be a referendum, or given current instability, an election this autumn.

Irish Independent

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