Friday 22 March 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Prepare for more Brexit nightmares after a peculiarly British revolution'

Brexit has been going in circles since January. Things will change this week - but not for the better, says Dan O'Brien

SKEWERED LOGIC: A carnival float depicts British PM Theresa May at the traditional parade in Dusseldorf last week
SKEWERED LOGIC: A carnival float depicts British PM Theresa May at the traditional parade in Dusseldorf last week
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Despite chronic Brexit fatigue all round, there can be no avoiding Britain's withdrawal from Europe today. On Tuesday, the British parliament looks set to reject - again - the EU withdrawal agreement. The central issue is the backstop.

As this column has argued since the backstop was put on the table close to 500 days ago, it always risked blowing up the Brexit talks. In just 19 days, Britain will crash out of the EU unless a great deal happens on both the British and EU sides. The chances of a no-deal exit have been dismissed and downplayed again and again. It is by no means certain that the worst possible outcome for all parties will take place in a few short weeks, but it is a very real possibility.

Unlike many issues that diplomats negotiate over, the backstop is essentially binary. It exists, to use the mot du jour, 'meaningfully', or it does not exist at all. Binary outcomes mean clear and obvious winners and losers. One of the reasons the backstop was so risky a tactic was because it introduced a winner-takes-all dynamic into already fragile and politically sensitive negotiations.

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Another more profound aspect of the backstop is that, if it kicked in, it would change the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. Voters there would be disenfranchised. The parliament making the swathes of laws governing their commerce would have its seat in Strasbourg and voters in the North would have no representatives in it. The highest court in the land would be in Luxembourg. Again, citizens of Northern Ireland would have no role in the running of that court. EU law would be supreme over UK law in Larne. It would not be across the water in Stranraer.

It is quite clear that Dublin and Brussels did not think through the constitutional dimension of the backstop when they dramatically put it on the table 16 months ago. Their position since has been to deny that there are constitutional implications. In normal times, a government claiming that black was white would have the opposition and media come down on it like a ton of bricks. But such is the extent of green-jersey wearing now, few people in this jurisdiction are prepared to state the facts.

Another failure of analysis underpinning the backstop was a misreading of British politics. Brexit has unleashed a revolution. Revolutionary politics is inevitably polarising. It has revolutionaries and counter-revolutionaries. Reason is one victim of revolution, and the remainers - the counter-revolutionaries in this case - are often as unreasoned as the Brexiteers. But from an Irish perspective, it is the latter who are more important because they are the ones who could drive Britain over the cliff edge.

The assumption in Dublin and Brussels has been that the British political system would never take a course of action as disruptive and risky as exiting the EU without a deal. Being so confident in that assumption was part of the reason the Irish and EU side pushed Britain so hard on the backstop.

The editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Allister Heath, last week backed a no-deal Brexit. This was not only a significant development in that his newspaper influences the Conservative Party and its MPs, but also because it reflects well a big strand of opinion in Britain. According to a recent YouGov opinion poll, 40pc of voters would prefer a no-deal exit over 60pc who favour exiting on the terms currently available. Among Conservative supporters, support for a no-deal exit was as high as 57pc.

An important plank of the view held by Heath and those who advocate going for broke is that they simply don't believe a no-deal exit would be very bad. "It wouldn't be pretty, especially for one or two industries, but would probably cost just 1-2 per cent of GDP," Heath wrote.

Underpinning this view is another view: that being in the EU never made much of a difference to the economy, something, incidentally, that is a lot truer for Britain than it is for Ireland. Heath was selective in his choice of data to support his assertion, but it is true that EU membership was not transformative for the British economy.

Heath went on to describe the UK government's handling of Brexit as the "greatest failure of British statecraft since Suez", referring to the failed attempt in 1956 by Britain and France to appropriate the Egyptian canal so vital to international trade.

The Anglo-French invasion of Egypt 63 years ago was a major mistake by both of the declining European powers, but it was a minor error compared with Brexit. And this is where Heath and those who think like him really get it wrong.

The EU is the latest incarnation of the European state system. That system ensures that relations among its states work in a way that is almost incomparably smoother than other regions of the world, where inter-state interaction is more focused on bilateral relations and is far less intense anyway. Influence in Europe today involves being at the table in Brussels. As it happens, and despite what newspapers like Heath's have reported for decades, Britain used the European system very effectively to shape the continent in its interests, as anyone from across the continent who has been at or near those tables in Brussels will attest.

Influence in Europe is a major determinant of global influence. You will go a long way in the world to find a practitioner of statecraft who believes Britain will have more clout outside the EU than in it. I have spoken to people about Brexit in places as diverse as Tokyo, Buenos Aires, Riyadh and Washington. Not one thought Britain's influence in the world would be anything other than diminished by giving up its seat at the table that really matters in Europe.

But the curiously parochial nature of Heath and others who might be termed 'thinking Brexiteers' is to show no interest in listening to how others see the world and Britain's role in it. The purpose of saying this is not to join the Brit-bashing mob, but to illustrate how a significant body of opinion in Britain has come to a conclusion on Brexit that no amount of evidence will change, at least on this side of actually leaving the EU.

The "much-hated" backstop, as it so commonly referred to even in non pro-Brexit British media, will almost certainly be rejected by the House of Commons this week. As the British prime minister said last week, nobody really knows what will happen then. But one thing is quite certain: those who want a no-deal will not only oppose seeking an extension of British membership of the EU, they will denounce any attempt to seek one as a national humiliation and as an exercise in prostration before Europe.

And then there is the issue of all sides agreeing to an extension of the deadline for leaving beyond March 29 and how long that extension should be. This creates its own nightmare.

A short extension might not be enough to do anything other than protract the current uncertainty. Any extension longer than three months would raise the issue of Britain having to hold elections to the European Parliament at the end of May. To ask millions of pro-Brexit voters to vote in an EU election after the UK was scheduled to leave the EU would be to intensify the revolutionary zeal.

Things have gone from bad to worse with Brexit. They will get even worse over the next seven days.

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