Sunday 20 October 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'Risk of a crash-out Brexit seems to have diminished - but we've still no deal and the clock is ticking...'

For the first time since last summer, the chances of a no-deal Brexit have receded. Photo: PA Wire/PA Images
For the first time since last summer, the chances of a no-deal Brexit have receded. Photo: PA Wire/PA Images
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

For the first time since last summer, the chances of a no-deal Brexit have receded. In my view, the probability of the worst possible outcome for this island remains alarmingly high, and developments over the past few days have not reduced the risk by very much, but the momentum has shifted.

The political dynamics in London have changed in so far as the many prominent pro-Brexit figures in the Conservative Party are looking defeated.

More widely, the relatively high level of support among the British public for a no-deal exit does not appear to be rising and/or hardening.

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By contrast, pro-Remain forces have become more mobilised. A petition for a second referendum has gathered six million signatures and counting. A huge anti-Brexit rally (the exact number of attendees is contested) took place in London last weekend.

But a lot still has to happen - on both the EU side and the UK side - if the worst is to be avoided.

Listening to much of the debate in Britain, one might think that delaying Brexit (again) is a decision to be taken by British politicians. It is not. All 27 remaining members of the EU must agree unanimously to any further extension.

Late last Thursday night, the Taoiseach and his 26 counterparts agreed to extend the original deadline, which had long been set for tomorrow night.

But the extension was far from unconditional. They made clear that if the terms of departure agreed with UK Prime Minister Theresa May last year, which include the Irish backstop, were not accepted by the House of Commons in the coming days, a new cliff-edge would be set for April 12.

The 27 leaders also put the ball very much in the UK's court. They told Mrs May, and the British political system more broadly, that to avoid a no-deal exit in just two weeks they would have to come up with some viable plan.

In the very next paragraph of their post-meeting communiqué, they explicitly stated that any plan put forward by London could not contradict the existing agreement reached between the EU and Mrs May.

That agreement has been voted down twice by the Commons. Even if it is put to a third vote, which is by no means certain, it will be defeated again on the basis of the current positions of the DUP, a few dozen Conservative MPs and the main opposition party.

Nor does it appear that the British are about to "indicate a way forward", as the EU 27 leaders have demanded.

Last night British MPs failed to give a majority to any of eight separate 'ways forward'. As of this morning, the paralysis continues and the clock, although reset by two weeks, continues to tick down.

One of the more likely outcomes over the next two weeks is that the British will seek a further extension of the Brexit deadline even if they have not agreed a plan that is acceptable to the EU side.

As discussed here last week, there are very good reasons for the EU 27 to prolong the saga in order to prevent a no deal. But as the weeks and months have passed, frustration has grown and with it the costs of dragging the process out.

EU leaders are trying to think 10 steps ahead in an effort to anticipate how those costs could multiply in the event of another year or more of having the UK as a member of the bloc.

Although there is no evidence that the British have used their EU membership to disrupt EU business, or have threatened to do so, concerns exist that this could happen in the event of a long extension.

If the UK holds elections to the European Parliament in May, it is perfectly possible that candidates will seek a mandate to use all means possible to achieve Brexit.

It is even more likely that the next leader of the Conservative Party will be a pro-Brexiteer, as all of the favourites for the role are on that side of the party.

Any contest for the leadership will see lots of tough talking on Europe to appeal to the strongly Eurosceptic base of the party, which has the final say if there is more than one candidate. Promises will be made and red lines drawn.

A nightmare prospect is having Boris Johnson representing the UK at EU leaders' meetings later this year and into next year. However much trust has been lost in Mrs May, it would be an understatement to say that Mr Johnson is actively distrusted.

Brexiteers were once fond of describing the UK's membership of the EU as being "shackled to a corpse".

They may not use it much any more, but Europe's leaders think along similar lines - they fear being shackled to a lunatic with a wrecking ball for the foreseeable future.

Let me conclude with a clarification. A letter writer to this newspaper on Saturday claimed that I had advocated "throwing Northern Ireland under a bus…to serve some sort of economic gain". Anyone who has read this column regularly since the backstop was put on the table 16 months ago knows that I have never advocated anything of the sort.

The on-going crisis in the Brexit process has been focused on the backstop. That in turn has very significantly increased the risk of a no-deal Brexit which would, despite denials and obfuscation from the Government, mean an EU obligation to impose a border on the Republic's side of the frontier. In other words, the backstop always risked bringing about that which it was designed to prevent.

Although there is absolutely no sign that other countries are urging Ireland to back down on the backstop, it may be the least bad option for everyone on this island in the days before the next potential cliff edge in just over two weeks.

An agreed five-year time limit on the backstop, for instance, would guarantee no change to the Border for at least seven years (the backstop would not kick in for almost two years). That would surely be better - for the North and the Republic - than a border in two weeks' time which would come with blame heaped on Ireland for bringing about a no deal and the potential for conflict with the EU 26 for failing to protect their common market.

Accusations of betrayal over Brexit have become commonplace in Britain. It would be a pity if those whose analysis differs from the consensus here were to be tarred with that brush.

Irish Independent

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