Saturday 23 March 2019

Dan O'Brien: 'With 75 days to Brexit, our future's on the line'

The mood in London is grim and events are now spinning out of control as Brexit looms ever closer, writes Dan O'Brien

TENSIONS: As both sides of the Brexit debate argue their case, delaying or cancelling the UK’s departure from the EU could trigger an unprecedented backlash. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
TENSIONS: As both sides of the Brexit debate argue their case, delaying or cancelling the UK’s departure from the EU could trigger an unprecedented backlash. Picture: Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire
Dan O'Brien

Dan O'Brien

Before spending much of the last week in London, I had hoped to get a better understanding of the political dynamics driving the Brexit process in Britain. That hope proved forlorn. The visit's main takeaway, after talking to a range of people involved with Brexit, is that there is just as much chaos in both the main political parties as there appears to be from afar.

While nobody I spoke to believed that the terms of the divorce due to be voted on in Westminster on Tuesday will be passed, nor could anyone make a convincing case for how events in the coming weeks will unfold. The prime minister, Theresa May, has no tactical game plan, never mind a strategic masterplan. The cabinet is divided. There is talk about parliament "taking control", but it is even more divided than the cabinet on what course of action to take. The reality is that Britain is in the rare, if not unprecedented, position for a mature democracy in that nobody is in control. Brexit has become a runaway train.

Despite almost 1,000 days having passed since the Brexit referendum and exactly 75 days until Britain is scheduled to leave the EU, the range of possible outcomes remains very wide. The most immediate and important issue - for Ireland as well as for Britain - is whether there will be a no-deal exit.

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There are those who are sure that will not happen, mainly on the basis that only a small minority in the British parliament favours such an outcome. Avoiding that outcome would be very much in Ireland's interests, yet even a positive outcome now comes with its own significant dangers.

There is no little trepidation about how those who voted in favour of Brexit or who believe that the referendum result must be respected whatever the economic costs would react to any course of action that would stop departure on March 29. There is a lot of talk to the effect that delaying or cancelling the departure from the EU could trigger an unprecedented backlash.

Whether this is correct or not, there is no denying the depth of feeling for millions of Britons on the issues. Over the past week alone, there has been a heightening of tensions, with MPs on both sides of the debate talking of increased harassment and threats.

While some in the media like to see right-wing extremists under every bed and think that a return to 1930s' fascism is always just around the corner, a more sober person I spoke to last week who has an insight into intelligence matters confirmed that the security services are genuinely concerned about the threat of violence and terrorist acts from extremist elements.

Nor can the danger that Ireland gets the blame be denied or downplayed. The backstop designed to ensure that there is never any change to border arrangements on this island is routinely written of in pro-Brexit newspapers as the "hated" and "despised" backstop. Hostility towards Ireland has increased. It would increase further if Brexit does not happen on March 29. That is not a comforting thought, not least for the hundreds of thousands of Irish people living in Britain.

Brexit was always going to be a lose-lose proposition for all involved. But the dynamics that have taken hold are making it more so almost by the day. The prospect of a no-deal exit in 75 days remains the most likely outcome in my view. And there are people closely involved in the Brexit process in London who are extremely worried that a crash-out could happen.

Neither of the two main party leaders wants to be the focus of the odium that would result if she or he changed tack to allow that to happen. Nor is there any certainty that a referendum would bring Britain back from the brink. A Survation poll last week asked how people would vote in a referendum held tomorrow on leaving or staying in the EU, with 51pc backing staying and 49pc supporting leaving. Despite the near endless talk of Brexit, public opinion has barely changed since the question was put in the June 2016 referendum.

Another much discussed aspect of the Brexit fiasco is that the UK's membership will lapse in 75 days unless somebody changes tack. No-deal is the default position. Inertia, one of the most powerful and underrated forces in human affairs, usually works against change. In the case of Brexit, it works in favour of the biggest possible change.

Another factor driving Britain towards a no-deal exit is that many politicians, people and organisations simply do not believe that it would be so bad, and that even includes some internationally focused businesses, according to one very well informed person I spoke to (the advanced manufacturing sector is different in that it appears to be uniformly fearful of disrupted trade flows).

Though nobody can know for sure how big an economic shock would result from a no-deal exit, or how long it would last, there is substantial planning for that eventuality going on in London.

What does this all mean for Ireland?

Even if one believes that the risk of no deal is low, there needs to be more planning for it because the short-term impact could be huge. The value of Ireland's imports and exports as a percentage of GDP was 3.3 times greater than Britain's in 2017. Put another way, Britain is much more self-sufficient than Ireland. As such, it is perfectly possible that the Irish economy could suffer a much bigger hit than Britain in the event of no deal.

Not enough work has been done here between the Government and those involved in the supply and purchasing of medicines for a worst case scenario. On food, there is still too much complacency. Ireland is a massive net importer of staples. The value of potato imports exceeded exports by a factor of 25 in 2017. Forty times more flour products are bought into the country than shipped abroad. Because almost everyone consumes bread and/or potatoes in any given day, the effect of soaring prices or outright supply disruptions would be very widely felt.

Ireland is one of the least self-sufficient countries in Europe when it comes to energy, importing almost all the oil, gas and coal that keeps the country's lights on. That point was made in London last week when discussing Britain's energy trade (it is more or less self-sufficient thanks to its North Sea fields, so no-deal planners there are not concerned about that issue).

It is to be hoped that the British will arrive at an outcome that avoids the worst. But hopes that sense would prevail in British politics have been dashed time and again over the 1,000 days. If in the coming weeks, the default outcome looms larger, Leo Varadkar will have the biggest call of his political life to make.

He took a huge risk in November 2017 by putting the backstop on the negotiating table.

If he has to back down to avoid a no-deal outcome and its huge consequences for the people of this country, that is what he should do.

Sunday Independent

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