Thursday 18 July 2019

John Downing: 'Brexiteers beware - Johnson is not above a U-turn once he's got himself into high office'

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

This day three years ago, June 24, 2016, we awoke to news that our neighbour and huge trading partner had opted to leave the trading bloc in which we had invested most of our future hopes.

Many people, some of whom should have known better, believed the United Kingdom voters would narrowly opt to stay with the European Union which they had joined alongside Ireland and Denmark in January 1973. In the event, the UK voters opted to leave the EU on an aggregate vote of 52pc to 48pc.

In Scotland and Northern Ireland, near enough six out of 10 people opted to stay with the EU.

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Wales, which received the highest level of EU aid per head of population, voted Leave by the same margin as the overall national vote. The die was cast.

Exactly three years on, we are almost as wise as ever, in some ways. But one thing has become abundantly clear: this stalemate cannot continue.

The mainland EU countries have already moved on from Brexit and UK citizens are heartily fed up with it. One way or another, it will have to be taken off the political park before this year ends.

In saying that, we are not suggesting a definitive ending. In reality the detail of the UK extricating itself from the EU will take anything up to another decade. Nor can we in any way say the resolution will necessarily be positive as the threat of a no-deal outcome looms more than ever and is very real.

We are saying that this diffuse mess cannot be allowed to continue. There must be some semblance of an ending which takes the political heat out of things. Quieter negotiations could then begin on framing a new post-Brexit EU-UK relationship.

The issue has caused a major upheaval in the UK's politics, to the point where the future of the union is now in considerable doubt. Scottish independence is back on the agenda and, for the first time since 1920, the prospect of Northern Ireland parting company with Britain cannot be ruled out.

In the coming weeks, the UK will be on its third prime minister in the three years since Brexit. David Cameron, who looked invincible after winning a surprise overall majority in an election in May 2015, was gone by breakfast time after the Brexit result was confirmed exactly three years ago. His ill-judged decision to hold a Brexit referendum was a ruinous legacy.

We cannot rule out the prospect of yet another UK general election in the coming months, given the current level of instability. The less likely prospect of another Brexit referendum also remains in the air. But odds are the probable new UK prime minister, Boris Johnson, will do all he can to avoid either of these.

Theresa May, who replaced Mr Cameron, was given a very difficult and intractable task. But she stumbled from one political catastrophe to the next, including an ill-fated and unnecessary general election in June 2017 which left her without a majority.

Mrs May compounded her woes by making an ill-judged pact with the Democratic Unionist Party, giving it a de facto almost-veto on her Brexit manoeuvres.

She has failed three times to get the EU-UK divorce deal she brokered on November 25 through the British parliament.

Mrs May will be replaced by Leave-at-all-costs Boris Johnson. The weekend controversy about a domestic dispute shows he is less than ideal. But his recent history shows that he can probably shake this off and defeat his rival, Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt, in the poll of 160,000 Conservative Party members. Mr Johnson has pledged that the UK will leave by the next deadline of October 31. But he keeps talking up the bogus notion that the EU will reopen negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. That quite simply will not happen and he knows it.

This past weekend's EU leaders' summit unanimously endorsed the view that the UK Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar again said he looked forward to meeting the new UK prime minister after his election next month. Interestingly, he noted that both Mr Johnson and Mr Hunt had voted for Mrs May's Brexit deal in the last UK parliament vote just weeks ago.

The Taoiseach held out the hope that either of the two remaining candidates to become UK prime minister can be persuaded to back the existing Brexit deal.

There are many precedents in history for hardline politicians using their tough stances to get into high office and then moving to do the very thing they swore they would never do. Take Ian Paisley as one of many examples.

While the Withdrawal Agreement - and the Irish no-border guarantees - cannot be reopened, there is still scope for concessions to the UK in a declaration to frame continuing negotiations.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said the bloc would remain "very precise and also patient" despite the high political drama unfolding in Westminster. "Maybe the process of Brexit will be even more exciting than before because of some personnel decisions in London, but nothing has changed when it comes to our position," Mr Tusk said.

He said all remaining 27 EU leaders were adamant there could be no changes to the EU-UK divorce deal agreed by Mrs May on November 25 last year. "We are open for talks when it comes to the declaration on the future UK-EU relations if the position of the UK were to evolve, but the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation," Mr Tusk said.

Jean-Claude Juncker, head of the European Commission, which led Brexit talks for the EU, said leaders "repeated unanimously there will be no renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement".

Despite the unbending Brexit stances of both the EU and the potential new UK leaders, Mr Varadkar said he did not see a no-deal result by the next October 31 deadline as inevitable. This does have the air of a man whistling past the graveyard. If nothing happens, a no-deal Brexit automatically happens.

The Taoiseach repeated the admission that if there is a hard Brexit, Ireland will be obliged to defend the single market and ensure it does not "become a back door" for goods and products which do not meet EU standards.

"We will have to continue conversations with the European Commission about these issues," he said. He avoided comment on suggestions that there is a growing view in Brussels that no deal means there must be some cattle and plant health controls on the Irish Border in a no-deal scenario.

The anxiety continues for Ireland, and indeed for UK business leaders who are acutely aware of the consequences of a no-deal.

Mr Johnson's other fantasy is that there would be a transition period in the event of no deal which would allow practical arrangements be put in place. That will not happen, the EU insists.

Irish Independent

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