Monday 16 September 2019

Philip Ryan: 'A Johnson-led exit will be pieced together like a jigsaw'

Brexit scaremongering is self-defeating as the big bang fears will be replaced by a slow exit, writes Philip Ryan

Boris Johnson. Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch
Boris Johnson. Photo: REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The threat of Brexit is always that of a big bang. Countdown clocks with ominous deadlines looming. Fear of what comes next when the big hand and little strike midnight on October 31. A dystopian, post-apocalyptic world awaits those who make it through to the morning.

From day one, Brexit has been about playing on the public's fears and it continues to be so today. During the UK referendum, voter concerns about immigration were manipulated. The impact of EU regulations on agriculture, the fisheries and other industries was used to stoke fears among businesses.

Since the referendum's passing, the UK, the EU and our own Government have filled the continent's people with nightmare-levels of dread about the potential outcome of a no-deal Brexit. Industries will be decimated, unemployment will soar and terrorist violence will re-emerge.

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Member state economies will be rocked by a near-collapse in consumer confidence and thousands of companies will go to the wall. We are told this could all happen overnight. The world, or at least the continent, as we know it, will no longer exist when the sun rises on November 1.

We will wake up to a new reality but the drain on consumer confidence which will shock most economies post-Brexit is a result of the actions and words of all the governments and officials involved in the negotiations.

The reality is there will be no big bang on November 1. The world will not stop spinning. Brexit will happen, but it will not be overnight. It will be pieced together like a jigsaw in the coming months, years and decades. "Brexit is an evolving new reality," one senior government figure said last week.

The source said there is "too much focus on what happens on November 1 and not on the longer-term, more gradual changes as we are unaligned".

Preparations are already in place to limit some of the worst impacts of the UK crashing out of the EU and more will most likely be agreed if the logjam over the backstop is not resolved in time for the Halloween deadline.

No-deal Brexit contingency plans have been agreed between the UK and European Commission which cover aviation, transport and citizens' rights. They are time-limited and can be withdrawn by either side.

There are proposals for charging tariffs on goods electronically and carrying out customs checks in factories and ports. Discussions are still ongoing about how livestock will be checked but the great minds of Europe and the UK will surely find some interim measures which avoid Armageddon.

There is an increasing acceptance within Government that this is the most likely scenario in the coming months. A fudge or compromise of some description may be agreed within a phone book-sized document on contingency measures which will reduce the pain of the UK transitioning into what they call a third country.

The UK's exit from the EU will evolve slowly over time - one mini-treaty at a time. October 31 may be the exit date and Boris Johnson will make some half-hearted attempt to celebrate the end of living under EU rules. But he won't have fully left the EU at this point.

It can be forgotten that we are only in the very early stages of the Brexit journey. The Future Relationship talks haven't even begun and cannot until the withdrawal period is completed. We will probably still be discussing Brexit in 10, 15 or even more years' time. It's dispiriting, I know.

Last Friday, Johnson predicted that he will strike a deal on "the steps of the court" with the EU close to the exit deadline but, if he does, it will only be a sticking plaster on the wound ahead of the amputation surgery.

The UK will still be entwined with the union through some form of agreed arrangements. The more the better, from most people's perspective. After a few months of life under this legislative patchwork, negotiations will begin again and more baby steps will be taken towards the UK leaving the EU. The hope is Johnson, or whoever else is leading the UK government, will have a parliamentary majority at this point.

In the meantime, there is still an awful lot of aspirational and wishful thinking within our own Government these days.

Like the rest of us, ministers sit and watch events in Britain unfold as they try to figure out what will be the next move in Westminster. Not the most proactive of political strategies but they will tell you they don't get involved in UK domestic politics - even when the fate of our economy and people are at stake.

There a couple of scenarios which our lot hope will play out when the UK parliament returns in early September. The first is that a motion of no confidence in Johnson is passed by MPs and it forces the prime minister from office.

Johnson has insisted he will leave the EU without a deal even if he is in the middle of a general election campaign. It would be a breach of precedent to do so but there is no better man for breaking with tradition than Johnson.

Another school of thought is that British MPs who voted against the EU Withdrawal Agreement will support the deal at the last minute when they are faced with the prospect of a no-deal Brexit. All very aspirational but there is not a lot our leaders can do about antics in the UK.

Finally, last week in his letter to Donald Tusk, Johnson said the backstop was "anti-democratic" because it "affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them" if they have to abide by EU rules while a backstop is enforced.

Johnson would surely then be open to the prospect of a Northern Ireland-only backstop which the people of the Six Counties could exit if they choose to do so through a Northern Ireland-only referendum on the backstop.

Sectarian divisions would be drawn like most votes in the North but more than 55pc voted to remain in the Brexit referendum.

And, last week, an opinion poll showed 58pc of people in the North would vote for a Northern Ireland backstop. So maybe the offer should be made to Johnson, even if only to call his bluff.

Sunday Independent

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