Wednesday 23 October 2019

Gerard O'Regan: 'The EU is not for turning on Brexit as Westminster sinks into cataclysm'

Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hold a media conference at the conclusion of an EU summit in Brussels yesterday. European Union leaders have vowed to step up preparations for a potentially-catastrophic no-deal scenario. Photo: AP
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker hold a media conference at the conclusion of an EU summit in Brussels yesterday. European Union leaders have vowed to step up preparations for a potentially-catastrophic no-deal scenario. Photo: AP

Gerard O'Regan

For German car makers and Italian Prosecco producers, it's still a case of mum's the word. And the silence from Spanish wine sellers and the Dutch cheese sector has been equally deafening. And therein lies the ultimate tale of Brexit. Members of the EU fraternity - despite all sorts of speculation to the contrary - have not broken ranks.

This was supposed to be the ace in the pack for British negotiators. The Brussels cabal would crack when hardy came to hardy. Politicians on the continent would come under unprecedented pressure from those car, wine and cheese makers. The belief was that once a serious risk to sales in the lucrative UK market emerged, businesses large and small would agitate to provide the London government with an easy exit deal.

We were warned that, at the end of the day, business is business. For many firms, exports to the UK - the world's sixth largest economy - is a vital lifeline. No wonder, from an Irish perspective, there was a gnawing fear matters related to motors, wine and cheese could see us come unstuck.

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Would not our fixation on not having a hard Border between Newry and Dundalk seem small time and parochial? After all, billions of euro in profits, involving some of the largest conglomerates on the continent, could be at risk if the Irish 'backstop' scuppered an agreed exit deal.

Yet, to the surprise of many, ranging from extremist Tory Brexiteers to the DUP, backing for the backstop has held rock solid. As Westminster sinks into ever deeper cataclysm, the pressure for some sort of give on the EU side has reached unprecedented levels. But other than meaningless platitudes, Angela Merkel and Co have remained unyielding in their approach to the 'Irish question'.

The result is that this round of international negotiations is like no other in the history of Irish diplomacy. Simply put, being part of a united 27-member power bloc has given Leo Varadkar an aura of strength, completely unknown to previous delegations fighting our corner in foreign fields. In contrast, Theresa May has often cut a lonely figure, dwarfed by the sheer force of numbers, and expertise, on the opposing side.

But we cannot allow ourselves to be carried away. Our EU partners, just like Irish political leaders, will all too often make decisions on the basis of national self-interest rather than any idea of European solidarity. But then again, self-interest is the primary reason our EU partners are sticking by us on this occasion. The key drivers of the European project, Germany and France, want to protect their much-valued single market and customs union, come what may.

And so, on mature reflection, the fundamentals of this Brexit tale are very simple. Ireland is staying. Britain is leaving. In that sense the EU should unequivocally side with the player who is sticking with the team. That is as it should be. All the more so when there is a majority in Ireland - on both sides of the Border - who wish to remain part of the EU.

It is now clear there has been a grievous miscalculation in Britain as to what the whole idea of Brexit really entailed. It was never as simple as just waving goodbye. And whatever the benefits of trade deals with the likes of Singapore - recent days are a reminder of operating on the economic fringes of Europe - will pose unforeseen challenges.

The Westminster gridlock, with neither the Conservatives nor Labour capable of putting forward a coherent Brexit strategy, will have long-term consequences for politics across the water. There is inevitably speculation about the formation of a new party, which would cater for disaffected middle-of-the-road types, among both the Tories and Corbyn-led Labour. But the first past the post electoral system means such a project is most likely doomed to failure.

Meanwhile, as of now, the EU conglomerate is not for turning - although the future on many fronts remains on a knife-edge. But, as ever, perhaps there was a clue as to the way things are going in the brooding presence of Angela Merkel while another Brussels showdown unfolded. Responding to the latest Theresa May plea for change to the exit arrangements, she said: "We have our principles - the EU 27 will continue to be very united on these."

Irish Independent

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