Sunday 24 February 2019

Jody Corcoran: 'Are the moon, stars and all the planets about to fall on Leo Varadkar's head?'

The Taoiseach may come under pressure to fudge the backstop to facilitate soft Brexit talks and avoid a border in Ireland

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Finbarr O’Rourke Photography/PA
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Finbarr O’Rourke Photography/PA
Jody Corcoran

Jody Corcoran

Leo Varadkar is facing his Harry Truman moment. What he does next will define his place in history for decades to come. It is said that the Taoiseach is "Zen" at the moment. Perhaps. Sometimes though, the more it is said that somebody is calm and relaxed the more likely it is that the opposite is the case.

Truman was the only 20th Century US president without a college degree. Within three months of being elected vice-president, he was called to the presidency. And it was widely expected he would be woefully out of his depth.

At the time, 1945, Truman had not been briefed about the late President Roosevelt's issues with the Soviet Union, or the development of the atomic bomb, the dropping of which on Hiroshima and Nagasaki he authorised within four months. "I felt like the moon, the stars, and all the planets had fallen on me," he subsequently said.

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Next month the moon, stars and all the planets will threaten to fall on Leo Varadkar. He may have to make a decision, or decisions which will not only define his place in history, not only impact the economy here, and therefore social outcomes for years, but which will have a significant effect throughout Europe and on economies around the world.

It is no exaggeration to say that Leo Varadkar is, or is about to become, one of the most important global political leaders of the modern age. No pressure then.

After the various votes in the House of Commons last week, it has become more likely that one of the decisions he will have to take is whether to relent on the backstop, or fudge it in such a way as to not lose face.

If Varadkar is in a tight spot, then his only consolation is that the UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is in an even tighter one.

As the Brexit negotiations go down to the wire, it is more apparent that game theory is in play - even if Jean-Claude Juncker said last week: "This is not a game." But still, who will blink first?

For all the pressure the Taoiseach is under - he must be flapping furiously under the surface of the water - it is still more likely that, collectively, the Commons will blink on February 14.

From the outset, Theresa May has played a poor hand poorly, and then more poorly still.

In this regard, the greatest advantage the EU secured at the start was to structure the Brexit negotiations in consecutive phases: withdrawal arrangements first and then the future relationship.

This gave the EU all of the leverage in negotiating a withdrawal agreement before, as the UK craves, talks on a future trade deal could begin.

For the UK, it would have been better had the talks been conducted concurrently, so that it could obtain benefits for concessions made, and to better sell the final package to its people.

The truth is, in this game theory, the UK has allowed itself to be on the back foot from the beginning, and there is little to indicate that it will bound to total success at the last moment.

The opposite, in fact: right now, the UK resembles a man tottering on a cliff edge, holding a gun to his own head.

And the risk is that it will grab Ireland, then the Netherlands, Belgium, up to seven EU countries most directly linked by trade, and pull them with it as it goes over that edge, ripples to touch the US, China and elsewhere globally as it hits rocks in the water below.

What Leo Varadkar will be required to do in the next few weeks is help the UK lower the gun from its own head, but remain on the cliff edge. As Angela Merkel's spokesman said last week, sometimes you have to stare into the abyss before you pull back.

To facilitate a breakthrough, Varadkar may have to relent on, or help to design such creative fudge on the backstop, without losing face.

In the Commons last week, Theresa May was afforded a final opportunity to re-open the withdrawal agreement. The EU understands that its interests depend on staying united behind a coordinated strategy. Within moments of the Commons decision, Europe showed its united front.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a statement in which he paraphrased a segment of a speech he had made in the Dail last June: "Sometimes, from time to time, I have the impression that some hope that the 26 other countries will abandon the backstop and so Ireland at the last minute. But this is not a game. And neither is it a simple bilateral issue. It goes to the heart of what being a member of the European Union means. Ireland's border is Europe's border - and it is our Union's priority."

Insofar as it goes, that is fine, but it was noted in Dublin that Juncker also referred to the backstop as a "safety net", a new term first used by Theresa May last week.

So, is the "backstop" about to be super-fudged into a "safety net"?

In game theory, internal divisions can be costly, and divisions within the UK, and especially the Conservativs, have seriously weakened the UK's negotiating position.

By necessity, positions are evolving all the same.

The Commons also showed last week that it was opposed to a no-deal Brexit, albeit in a non-binding vote, a decision which points towards a collective blink nonetheless.

Since then, it has been agreed that there will be a further series of votes in or around February 14, St Valentine's Day, by which time Theresa May will have been outwardly shown little love by EU.

There are also indications that several in Theresa May's Cabinet will resign their positions rather than allow a no-deal Brexit.

Further to that, there were tentative indications that the Labour Party is starting to engage in the process towards a customs union and some single market alignment-soft Brexit.

All of which points to one thing: the Commons will vote to defer Brexit on February 14.

But with a view to what? The gun will only be lowered when the UK and EU get into talks on a future trade deal: effectively, but without actually saying it, for the two phases of the talks to run concurrently.

This is where the moon, the stars, and all the planets will weigh heavily upon Leo Varadkar.

Should he relent, or a creative fudge be designed on the backstop, the suggestion is that the withdrawal agreement could be, ahem, parked for two years for a trade deal to be agreed.

In two years, the EU can always stand back, gesture towards the cliff edge and invite the UK to jump if it so wishes.

But having looked into the abyss, the view or hope is that a soft Brexit deal, involving customs and some single market alignment, will ultimately be negotiated to avoid a hard border in Ireland.

There are so many risks associated with this scenario, however. The Brexiteers may lay claim to the Conservative Party leadership, in which case the DUP will also double down on a hard Brexit; or of course, there may be an election and relative wisdom could ultimately prevail in the House of Commons.

Either way, to coin another Harry Truman statement, it is starting to look like the buck is about stop with Leo Varadkar in March. Zen, man…

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