Monday 23 September 2019

John Downing: 'We're back to politics of 'extend and pretend' - and prospect of general election here'

British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Theresa May. Photo: Reuters
John Downing

John Downing

Good news is that we are less likely to have a crash-out Brexit calamity at 11pm next Friday. Less good news is that we are going to have to listen to the topic many of us love to hate for another while yet.

We are back to the politics of "extend and pretend". But in the shadow of the return of a Border in Ireland, what odds on the UK getting an extension at all? What kind of extension? And what are the implications for Ireland?

On the first one, the answer is that the UK will probably get an extension of some kind - though yet again it requires unanimous approval from all 27 member states and some of those, notably France, remain to be convinced of the value of "delaying the evil day".

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It will be hashed out at yet another Brexit special leaders' summit in Brussels next Wednesday. Last time the leaders gathered, on March 21, there was still unity on wanting an orderly and timely UK-EU divorce. But the leaders diverged on how they could get there with a plethora of dates and deadlines being swapped. We can expect much more of that come Wednesday.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May wants her second extension to run until June 30. In an ideal world she would leave earlier, on May 22, and avoid the legal obligation to hold European Parliament elections on May 23.

She even yet holds out the faint hope that she may not be obliged to hold those elections for the sake of a few weeks to the end of June. EU leaders have clung to their "rules is rules" view up to now, though many of them do not want an influx of new Europhobe UK MEPs, whose presence would be further disruptive to Brexit and a host of other projects.

So, we have a conundrum inside an enigma on European elections. There are simpler phrases but we're not allowed to print them. And Mrs May is already preparing for those European elections.

EU Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair Wednesday's summit, has spoken of a 12-month extension in hopes of avoiding a series of cliff-edge delays, and taking more time to drive a satisfactory conclusion.

Many Brexiteers dread this as it risks the project being lost altogether and are not much cheered by Mr Tusk's offer of an earlier Brexit if London can get it ratified.

The summit chairman briefed the EU member state ambassadors yesterday and signals from that meeting were that no clear decision has yet emerged. German Chancellor Angela Merkel will very probably back the summit chairman and, following her uplifting message in Dublin on Thursday, will do all she can to get an agreed extension to provide an orderly Brexit.

Ms Merkel will also play "nice cop" to French President Emmanuel Macron's "nasty cop". Ireland will back a longer extension, or at minimum a short extension. The alternative is economic calamity.

But there are other consequences from an extension for Ireland. A smaller, but more immediate one is that we would be less likely to get the two extra European Parliament seats, which have been assigned one each to the Dublin and South constituencies.

That of itself poses technical problems for organising the Euro elections for which polling is due here on Friday, May 24. Last one home in Dublin and South might or might not be an MEP. Local Government Minister John Paul Phelan has spoken of plans to put the unlucky pair "in cold storage", pending a full Brexit resolution, but after perhaps spending €100,000-plus campaigning to get to that point.

The better news is that Ireland could very probably look forward to "a soft Brexit" with minimal trade disruption and no risk of a hard Border. That is probably the best outcome as a second UK Brexit referendum would be divisive.

A resolution, or parking, of Brexit in the coming weeks would mean a general election in Ireland. Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin pretty much let that one slip on radio with Sean O'Rourke yesterday when he spoke about the Government decision to defer property tax changes. At last our politics could be unblocked.

Irish Independent

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