Sunday 21 April 2019

Dan O'Brien: Brexit nightmare could get worse once May is replaced

Doomsday was postponed last week - but there are tough questions about the Border that won't go away

A POTENTIAL DISASTER: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are the favourites to lead the Tories after Theresa May goes
A POTENTIAL DISASTER: Boris Johnson and Michael Gove are the favourites to lead the Tories after Theresa May goes
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

What position will the German chancellor take on the Irish Border if Britain crashes out of the EU? What position will the next British prime minister take toward Brexit and Ireland? These questions have rapidly moved up the agenda over the past week.

Last Thursday night's meeting of EU leaders extended Britain's scheduled departure from the EU by at least 14 days. That was well worth doing - anything that prevented the worst from starting next weekend is to be welcomed. But the worryingly high risk of a no-deal exit has not been reduced by the decision. It has merely been postponed by two weeks.

The EU 27 leaders want the British parliament to reverse its position on the existing withdrawal deal negotiated by Theresa May and the EU. If the Commons reverses two previous votes and swallows the deal, the Border backstop included, Britain will leave the EU on May 22. It will enter into a transition period until the end of next year in which nothing changes for people and businesses. While the outright cancellation of Brexit remains the slimmest of possibilities and the best outcome from an Irish perspective, an orderly exit in two months' time, now looks to be the least bad achievable outcome.

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But as the withdrawal deal has not changed, any third vote in the House of Commons this week on that deal, if it even takes place, is almost certain to be rejected. If that happens, last Thursday night's plan formulated by the EU leaders envisages that the British "indicate a way forward" while at the same time accepting that the withdrawal agreement rejected in three votes cannot be changed.

There is still a lot of talk in British politics about "parliament taking back control" and of a "softer Brexit" emerging. But given the failure of the British political system to agree a path to Brexit over more than 1,000 days since the referendum, the chances of an agreement over the next 19 days - on the backstop and many other divisive issues - are poor. As such, a no-deal exit is still a very real prospect.

The gravity of this for Ireland is becoming clearer. At the summit, the most powerful EU leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, raised the issue of the Irish border in the event of the worst happening in three weeks. She is reported to have asked how the new EU external border that would emerge on this island would function.

This issue has been largely avoided during the Brexit negotiations, in part because the Irish and EU side has always been (overly) confident that it would never have to be addressed. The Taoiseach has long maintained that no preparations have been made for how Ireland would fulfil its border obligations to other EU countries if Britain crashed out without a deal. Last week, he spoke of potentially "difficult discussions" with the countries that have supported the Irish position throughout the talks. This is an extreme understatement.

Ireland is a member of the EU's single market and its customs union. It has cast- iron obligations to ensure that goods coming into the bloc are checked to meet single market standards and that the EU's common external tariff on those goods, if applicable, is paid over. Any member which fails to meet those most basic obligations threatens the integrity of the EU market.

The Brexit fiasco has highlighted many things about how Europe works, including how market integrity is considered a vital national interest by members of the union. If Ireland does not meet its commitments to maintaining that integrity it will, sooner or later, cease to be a full member of that market. And let it be crystal clear: being in the EU market is the reason, above all others, why hundreds of thousands of multinational company jobs are located here.

If "difficult discussions" loom with the remaining members, relations with Britain risk deteriorating even further under any alternative leader of the Conservative Party. That issue jumped up the agenda last week as the current leader and prime minister, Theresa May, lost whatever authority she possessed seven days ago.

Over the past week she was blindsided by the decision of the Speaker of the Commons not to allow a third vote on her withdrawal deal, harangued MPs in a bizarre televised address last Wednesday and failed to convince other EU leaders she can deliver on any deal last Thursday night.

These failings come on top of much more fundamental miscalculations including: committing to leave both the EU single market and customs union in January 2017 without working out how these positions clashed so starkly with her commitment to avoid a hard border on this island; triggering the two-year exit process two months later with so little preparation; and signing up to the blatant contradictions in the December 2017 compact with the EU which brought the backstop into being.

Along with these major errors, May has been consistently unable to do the political basics - win people over, build coalitions and isolate opponents.

Her failure two weeks ago to square her own attorney general on the backstop, when her entire strategy for winning a second vote on it depended on his legal advice, was perhaps the starkest example of her ineptitude. It is hard to think of a political leader anywhere who has gone so far with so little nous.

Could her replacement be any worse? No and yes.

No, because no alternative could possibly make unforced errors at every turn as she has, and it is always easier to deal with the capably malign than those who are incapable but benign.

But her successor is likely to be considerably worse from an Irish perspective because the leading contenders are all more pro-Brexit than May and the two favourites are not well disposed toward Ireland.

All the many contenders for the Conservative Party leadership are more pro-Brexit than the current leader, including the three second-tier contenders - Dominic Raab, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, who are all on roughly similar odds to replace May. None of the potential candidates has given any indication of wanting a closer long-term relationship than has already been negotiated.

But the greatest concern from an Irish perspective comes in the form of the two leading contenders. Boris Johnson is also the bookies' favourite. Opinion polls show him to be wildly popular with the rank and file. He has a long antipathy toward the EU and has been unscrupulous in exploiting the issue for his own ends. He has never shown any affinity toward this island and is known to believe that the Border issue should not be the "tail that wags the dog".

Michael Gove is the second favourite. Although his opposition to the Good Friday Agreement at the time it was concluded does not necessarily make him hostile to Ireland, anyone of that view moving into Downing Street now could only cause further uncertainty in Northern Ireland and raise suspicions in Dublin.

It is now very easy to envisage a scenario within weeks in which Dublin-London relations deteriorate further under a new British prime minister and, at the same time, questions arise over Ireland's full participation in the single market.

Brexit was always going to be a strategic nightmare for Ireland. That nightmare is getting worse almost by the hour.

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