Sunday 22 September 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'There are still more questions than answers to this Brexit mess - but no deal remains the most likely outcome'

Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

However much one wants Brexit to go away, there is no getting away from it.

Today's column looks at four issues: what has changed in British politics this week; what has not changed in terms of the Government's absence of a plan for the Border if Brexit happens without a deal; what role the US is playing in the farrago; and what the biggest issue for people's daily lives will be if the worst happens.

Westminster and No Deal

Britain ceases to be a member of the EU on October 31. That hard, legal reality will only change if the British agree on a course of action, and then all 27 EU countries unanimously agree to it.

The belief, particularly prevalent in the British media, that this is all a matter for London to decide seems almost oblivious to this fact, or to be based on an assumption the EU side is certain to grant an extension, which is far from assured.

Much has rightly been made of the Boris Johnson-led government losing its majority in the House of Commons last Tuesday night. The course of action the majority of MPs are now pursing is to make a law obliging their government to seek another extension to the deadline for leaving the EU.

In Bunreacht na hÉireann, article 29 says that "external relations" are exercised by the government. This is the norm around the world. Parliaments do not conduct foreign policy. That is the function of governments.

Britain, of course, does not have a written constitution but the principle that foreign policy decisions are made by the government is accepted. If the bill currently being debated in Westminster becomes law, it could end up with the courts deciding on whether the government is obliged to seek a Brexit extension.

A more likely outcome is that Britain goes to the polls in a month or so.

The Conservatives are edging close to a majority in opinion polls, while the opposition remains fragmented. Nobody can predict how things will play out, but if the Conservatives - now purged of remainers - won a majority they could overturn any law obliging the government to seek an extension.

In sum, despite the drama of recent days, no-deal Brexit remains the default outcome, and the most likely outcome.

There is still no plan for the Border

Yesterday, the Tánaiste and Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney spoke of the risk of Ireland being "dragged out of the EU's single market" in the event of no deal.

He said that because EU countries' commitments to policing borders with non-EU countries could not be clearer.

The treaties that form the EU's de facto constitution state "products coming from a third country shall be considered to be in free circulation in a Member State if the import formalities have been complied with and any customs duties or charges having equivalent effect which are payable have been levied in that Member State".

Coveney yesterday spoke of having to convince other members that Ireland is meeting its treaty-enshrined obligations.

Yet more than three years after the British vote to leave the EU, the Government's position is that it is still talking with the European Commission on how those treaty-enshrined commitments to police the Border will be met.

All other external frontiers of the EU have traditional border checks, not least so that the "duties and charges" mentioned in the treaty are paid.

Instead of de-dramatising these checks, something the Government always had the power to do, it sought something that was never in its power to deliver - absolutely no change to how the Border functions (in the form of the backstop).

If that gambit fails, the Government will have the choice between policing the Republic's side of the Border to the satisfaction of the guardian of the treaties - the European Commission - and other member countries or face those countries treating Ireland as a non-member of the single market sooner or later.

Don't overstate the role of the US

The US vice-president Mike Pence made seemingly pro-British comments on Brexit two days ago while visiting Ireland. They didn't go down well with the Government.

Previous comments by leading Democratic Party politicians were warmly welcome by the Government. They were viewed as being pro-Ireland.

Comments by American politicians on Brexit get more attention than they deserve, for three reasons.

First, Europeans have always been allergic to Washington interfering in the internal affairs of the bloc.

Even under previous presidents, American attempts to influence EU business were strongly rebuffed. Brexit is a matter for Europe. Washington's views will not be decisive.

Second, that would apply under a more normal US president. Donald Trump is not a normal president.

Trump's views are not sought out on this side of the Atlantic. They are tolerated because he is US president, but his words carry little authority on anything, never mind internal EU affairs.

Third, Brexiteers in Britain make much of a quick trade deal with the US while here much is made of statements by US Democrats that they will veto any such trade deal if Brexit negatively affects the functioning of the Good Friday Agreement.

The reality is that many months and probably years will have passed between a no-deal Brexit happening and a trade agreement being concluded between the United Kingdom and United States and put before the US congress.

A great deal will have changed in the intervening period.

Consumer interests must get top priority in Ireland's no-deal planning

Ireland is much more dependent on foreign trade than Britain.

As such, disruption to international supply chains is very likely to affect Ireland more than Britain.

The biggest immediate danger for the country is not the producers who export, but imports for consumers - we import more goods from Britain than go the other way, and that's before considering all the goods that come from the continent via Britain.

Throughout the Brexit process, producers' interests have been given more attention than the interests of the consumers.

More now than ever, it should be the other way around.

Irish Independent

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