Wednesday 24 July 2019

In five years' time we will wonder just what all the fuss was about

UK voters have given the EU a kick, but Remain supporters will reassert themselves, so don't bank on Brexit, says Shane Ross

FURORE: If Theresa May is elected prime minister, her government will be negotiating a deal without an ounce of conviction. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
FURORE: If Theresa May is elected prime minister, her government will be negotiating a deal without an ounce of conviction. Photo: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

Shane Ross

Last Friday, just a week after Britain's Brexit 'disaster', the UK stock market had enjoyed its best week since 2011. Bond yields hit record lows. Boris Johnson, the big winner, had been fatally wounded. The favourite to succeed David Cameron at Number 10 was not the man entitled to the spoils of war but a loser, Remain supporter and Home Secretary Theresa May. Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn was fighting for his political life. His crime: only lukewarm support for the Remain side. An earthquake was taking place. Those who had won were losing. Those who had lost were winning.

Armageddon was not beckoning, after all. The markets were clearly signalling that Britain would soon enjoy a boom. The nation had been prematurely spooked.

Buyers were returning to UK stocks in their droves, expecting an early economic stimulus. Meanwhile, shares in Germany, France and, above all, Ireland were nursing nasty losses.

PATIENCE: Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel
PATIENCE: Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel

The Scottish charmer, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, was cold-shouldered in Brussels, by nearly everyone bar Enda Kenny. Europe was not quite ready to ditch the mighty Brits in favour of the plucky Scots. Separate negotiations with Scotland were judged premature. Nicola returned to Scotland empty-handed.

Europe was hesitating. So was the UK. A clear undercurrent was running through European leaders' post-trauma behaviour. No one, including the Brits, quite believed the historic decision was the last word on the story.

A comforting creature crept into the chaotic narrative: Britain had maybe suffered from a national aberration. While France's Francois Hollande and European Commision President Jean-Claude Juncker petulantly insisted that Britain take its leave quickly, others were not so hasty. Angela Merkel suggested that sober heads should not be in such a hurry.

Europe was playing for time. Britain was playing for time. Even Ireland was playing for time. Shell-shocked leaders began to talk hopefully of the negotiations taking years. Protagonists on both sides of the channel wondered whether time would allow a change of heart. They even whispered that, over time, the decision could be reversed. Most countries in Europe were now destined for downturns, as their economies nearly all stood to suffer from Britain's withdrawal. The UK looked less vulnerable than most as Sterling's dive offered exporters an opportunity.

The penny began to drop in some key European quarters that there were no easy economic solutions to a British withdrawal; that knee-jerk reactions prompted by anger, followed by punitive measures against the UK, could cause self-inflicted wounds to the remaining 27 members of the Union, but not to the errant one.

Zealots among the Remain lobby in Britain made demands for another referendum. Wild claims that the electorate were peddled lies (they always are!) made them look like bad losers, but a more cunning agenda began to emerge. Time was to be their weapon.

If Theresa May is elected British prime minister, if she does not pull the Leave trigger until next year or later, if the negotiations drag on beyond the minimum two years, if the talks get deadlocked, what next? All bets will be off. Theresa's government will be negotiating a deal without an ounce of conviction. Few at the top tables in Europe will favour the final departure of Britain. Neither side will even favour reaching agreement. Not exactly auspicious omens for a rapid result.

And even if they do agree terms, what is to stop Theresa calling another referendum on the final deal? She could even suggest that while the terms agreed are the best on offer, the voters should reject them. The Leave decision will be reversed. Britain and Europe will breathe a collective sigh of relief. Democracy will be pronounced to have prevailed. The entire venture will be deemed a lucky escape. No one will be luckier than Ireland if Britain remains in the Union.

The economies of the European nations will breathe easier. There are plenty of precedents, pretty close to home, for second referendums. It happened here after Nice and Lisbon when the Irish people, suddenly confronted with the economic unknown, reversed gear and returned to the warm womb of Europe.

Referendums are dangerous animals. Like by-elections, they give voters a chance to deliver governments hard kicks in the posterior, usually in mid-term without changing regimes. So the first referendum is an opportunity for protest about peripheral issues, the second to reverse the first. In Ireland, many of us who voted against some European referendums initially voted with our hearts. The second time we voted with our heads.

Ten days ago, British citizens voted with their hearts. They opted to leave Europe, mainly down to raw emotions. Yet the real consequences will be in their pockets. This is where their heads will come into play. Some voted for the exit for racist reasons. Others yearned for the old days of empire. Others were protesting against austerity.

Others simply loved Boris. They voted for his theatrical anti-European polemics, not his non-existent economic analysis. Few fretted about big-ticket items like gross domestic product, Foreign Direct Investment or their wage packets. Boris was charismatic, an emotional luxury. The old Etonian has suddenly been exposed as an indulgence they cannot afford. His own exit has left his mesmerised followers abandoned.

The common voter objection to the European Union at referendums in Britain and Ireland has been a gut dislike of the entire institution. The most offensive feature of Europe is not its economy or the internal market , it is the way European institutions conduct themselves. Older British people (who vote more than their younger counterparts) do not like anonymous apparatchiks dictating laws and customs to a nation with proud traditions. They detest European "directives", bureaucracy , the ECB and all commissioners. Ordinary United Kingdom citizens are acutely aware that Europe is a gravy train for an elite that is unaccountable to its citizens.

They have witnessed the patronage dished out by European politicians to political favourites as they land overpaid jobs in Brussels. They do not enjoy being equal partners with France and Germany, countries they have vanquished in war after war.

They are right in their disgust at the largesse and arrogance associated with the European top brass. But now that they have sent that message to Brussels loud and clear - job done - those who support Remain are likely to reassert themselves over coming weeks.

So, do not bank on Brexit. The Remain political establishment in the UK is already regrouping. Winners, like Boris, are leaving the stage. The Labour Party is looking to replace Corbyn with a more energetic Remain supporter.

A general election is almost certain before exit terms are agreed with Europe. It will be a second referendum on Europe. They are likely to follow Ireland's example and do a volte face.

And despite the rather spiteful noises coming from some European leaders in recent days , a nation that went walkabout will be welcomed back into the fold.

Shane Ross is Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport

Sunday Independent

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