Monday 16 September 2019

John Downing: 'The dark farce of Brexit edges to an uncertain conclusion'

Protest: British citizens resident in Ireland protest against no-deal Brexit at the British Embassy last night. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
Protest: British citizens resident in Ireland protest against no-deal Brexit at the British Embassy last night. Photo: Kyran O'Brien
John Downing

John Downing

Those cries of "Orrrr-duhhh - Orr-duhhh" are back with us again. But this inch-by-inch political drama still adds only slivers to our knowledge of where this dark Brexit farce is going to finish.

The Speaker of the Westminster Parliament John Bercow became an unlikely celebrity in Ireland last March and April when a no-deal Brexit was narrowly averted by a late deadline extension after days of political theatre.

Last night, Ireland's political leaders, and a good proportion of the country's population, again awaited the news from London.

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Eventually we learned the UK MPs have voted to set their own agenda and today will try to put in a legal block to a calamitous crash-out on October 31.

Success again looks likely - but cannot be guaranteed.

It now means an imminent UK general election bringing yet more uncertainty. One wonders what can be achieved at an expected visit by Boris Johnson to Dublin next Monday for talks with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The Taoiseach has yet again signalled that the Irish Border backstop is vital to support the North's fragile peace. Mr Johnson has continued to cite the backstop as something which has to be expunged from the Withdrawal Agreement.

The Johnson-Varadkar meeting is finally scheduled fully seven weeks after his election as Conservative Party leader and de facto prime minister on July 24. Though a face-to-face meeting of any kind is welcome, there is more than a suggestion that it will be chiefly about "managing" the Irish Border.

There is also a real prospect of political events overtaking this planned rendezvous. The British prime minister's decision to travel to Dublin is worthy of note in itself. Former Taoiseach John Bruton remarked recently that no sitting UK prime minister had visited Ireland for talks until after Britain and Ireland joined the EU in 1973.

That little vignette tells us how important the EU has been for British-Irish relations.

Fears of an abrupt 'no-deal' Brexit are, however, not confined to Ireland and are rising elsewhere.

There is a strong sense in Dublin that this may be the final chance of averting the calamity, for these islands and beyond, which a no-deal Brexit would bring.

In Brussels and the other EU capitals there was a deal more pessimism and resignation. There are big trade issues riding on this for the UK's nearest neighbours in France, Netherlands, Belgium and Germany.

But three years on from that UK vote, there is also an air of Brexit fatigue, and a need to end uncertainty.

The European Commission said a no-deal scenario was a "very distinct possibility" while French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said it was the most likely scenario.

The French European Affairs Minister Amelie de Montchalin said she was still waiting for alternative British proposals for the EU-UK divorce deal.

She frankly said the French government is preparing for Britain to crash out on October 31. French government ministers have met business leaders to talk about no-deal preparations. These comments came just as Mr Johnson was telling the UK Parliament that "alternative solutions" were on the table. In Paris, Ms de Montchalin has received "no packet of documents" detailing these.

The French minister limited comment on the UK political drama. But she did accuse British politicians of over-dramatising the backstop designed to avoid a visible border in Ireland.

"The backstop is not a two-headed monster but we are totally open to British proposals," Ms de Montchalin added.

Meanwhile, the wave of expert warnings about the consequences of a no-deal Brexit continued. The United Nations trade agency, UNCTAD, said it would cost Britain at least $16bn in lost exports to the EU, plus a large sum in indirect costs.

The topics for future speculation around Brexit remain a rich seam. In Brussels, for example, questions were being asked about what impact an ultimate general election win by Boris Johnson would have.

Would he, anchored in Downing Street with a big majority, be better fixed to screw concessions out of the EU?

One French official thought not. He said France's principles about Brexit are not linked to British life. A German Brexit expert, in Angela Merkel's ruling Christian Democrat party, was equally implacable in comments for the 'Financial Times'.

"It's all just down to domestic politics, which don't impinge on the EU's negotiating strategy," he said.

Other Brussels watchers might tend to a more optimistic view. In such an eventuality, still many moves away, a properly empowered Mr Johnson might have more latitude at home to be half reasonable in his EU dealings.

But then again, three years on, Brexit optimism is hard to come by right now - anywhere.

Irish Independent

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