Wednesday 23 October 2019

John Downing: 'As Brexit goes Stateside, better 'mood music' is the only change'


Talk time: UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (centre) met with EU negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels. Photo: Getty
Talk time: UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (centre) met with EU negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels. Photo: Getty
John Downing

John Downing

The posh word is "serendipity" - a term summing up happy coincidences. Thus, next week the focus of the dreary Brexit roadshow switches "Stateside" as all the main, er, actors involved attend a series of major United Nations' conferences in New York.

The happier bit of this coincidence is that 'Brexit' the movie will be on parade in Los Angeles at the same time. This powerful television film, from the HBO people who gave us 'The Sopranos' 20 years ago, was aired on Channel 4 last January to some acclaim with a tour de force especially by actor Benedict Cumberbatch.

How the film fares in its nomination for the famed Emmy Awards should be known by the time all the "political actors" file into the UN headquarters in Manhattan early on Monday.

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It might help if the UK people sat down in New York and watched this movie - subtitled 'The Uncivil War' - before their expected raft of side-bar Brexit meetings next week.

The UN General Assembly and a special UN climate summit will see everyone who is anyone in the Brexit stakes arrive in New York. Leo Varadkar is expected to meet Boris Johnson at some stage.

Attending also will be some of the EU Brussels kingpins and, more importantly, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel. All in all some business could be done informally.

We just had a week of "Brexit hullabaloo" with many people ostentatiously travelling hither and yon and lots of big statements.

Whether you now describe the glass as half-empty or half-full depends on who you were listening to.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney was pretty blunt. "I think the mood music has improved," he offered with one hand. "But I think we need to be honest with people and say that we're not close to a deal right now," he promptly took away with the other hand.

Well, a musical upgrade could lift moods and switch minds towards compromise, be it ever so belated. But while 'Brexit - The Uncivil War' is a powerful filmic re-telling of how we got into this mess in June 2016, the real-life black political Brexit farce is neither a movie, nor a musical.

Trying to untangle the Byzantine political imbroglio in which we now find ourselves, let's ask four key questions:

1. Does Boris Johnson really want a deal, or is this just a 'blame game'?

Most signs suggest that Mr Johnson by now really needs, rather than wants, a deal. Since he has been "snookered" by Parliament, his best chance of an early election to secure his grip on power is an on-time Brexit. That means a deal by the EU leaders' summit on October 17 and 18 delivering his "do-or-die" pledge of Brexit by October 31.

In that scenario, he could wipe out Nigel Farage's Brexit Party; see Labour still deeply divided; and outflank the Liberal Democrats' pledge to revoke Brexit. That could mean an election win.

The UK government finally delivered some form of proposals to Brussels on Thursday night. So, the UK-EU talks continue and UK Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay sat down EU negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday.

2. What is the EU's and Ireland's view?

Both Dublin and Brussels stay with the view that if Mr Johnson comes around with a proposal which is not the backstop - but also avoids a hard Border - they can deal.

EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he still hoped for a deal - and that it just might be doable.

In Dublin, the Taoiseach appears more upbeat than the Tánaiste, as cited already.

3. What is the view of the Democratic Unionist Party?

Since any compromise, if it happens at all, will involve special status for the North, the DUP's role is crucial.

In Dublin on Wednesday, party leader Arlene Foster seemed to be softening her stance that the North must quit the EU on exactly the same terms as the rest of the UK.

Now, fretful about how long more it can rely on Mr Johnson, and under pressure from farmers and business, it may settle for political guarantees on the North's status within the UK. But it's still tricky and tentative with few details published.

4. Is there enough time to pull all this together?

The shortage of time could be both an enemy and a friend - so much depends on the will of those involved. But the general principle of creating a special de facto economic zone for the North in less than a month is a pretty hefty task.

Both Ireland and the EU have so far been insisting on a legal text like that which framed the backstop - not just vague political promises.

There are huge legal questions like the role of the EU Court of Justice in ruling disputes in the North, something which was another red rag to Brexiteers.

Ireland will have to defeat UK calls to defer the whole issue of the North until the post-Brexit negotiations on a future EU-UK relationship after the divorce.

Mr Barclay voiced this view in a speech in Spain on Thursday, which contained some other objectionable elements.

We must also ask - even if the UK could get a late deal - would UK MPs back it?

By one calculation, Mr Johnson would need 17 Labour MPs to defect and hand him an election on preferential terms. Tricky one that.

Irish Independent

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