Sunday 20 January 2019

Leo must prevent Merkel from pushing Theresa May off a cliff

A hard Brexit forced on the UK would inexorably lead to ruin for Ireland, and would also prove a disaster for the EU itself

EVERYTHING TO PLAY FOR: Leo Varadkar and Theresa May in Downing Street. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga
EVERYTHING TO PLAY FOR: Leo Varadkar and Theresa May in Downing Street. Photo: Facundo Arrizabalaga

Ed Brophy

Don't be fooled by appearances. Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron's conciliatory words and smiles for Theresa May count for nothing.

Since the UK prime minister made the fateful decision to trigger Article 50 and set the clock running towards a fixed departure in March 2019, Britain's national humiliation has been inevitable - as there are in reality only two possible outcomes from the Brexit negotiations in the time that remains. Either Britain accepts the EU's terms, more or less in their entirety or, unable to stomach that, it stumbles into the other, catastrophic humiliation of crashing out of the EU without a deal.

Former EU commissioner Pascal Lamy captured Mrs May's dilemma starkly during the week: "It is not a negotiation. It is a process to be managed to minimise harm. The truth is there is nothing to discuss...  the only question is how much do you owe."

The hapless Mrs May has come slowly to this realisation. But you can see it now in her permanently haunted look and body language that reveals the sickening reality of Britain's position has truly dawned. Even when she makes constructive efforts to undo some of the damage of her previous disastrous approach, like her recent concessions in Florence on a financial settlement and citizens' rights, the EU 27 just pockets them and moves on. Macron confirmed this hardline stance at his post-summit press conference where he insisted there was no question of the EU softening its demands to help May avoid domestic political problems.

As Channel 4's Gary Gibbon put it, EU leaders are playing a game of diplomatic Jenga, where they extract as much money as possible from the UK, ideally without toppling Theresa May. Meanwhile, the hardliners within cabinet and outside continue to plot for the hardest of all possible Brexits.

Up to now, we have gone along with the EU approach, even though any reasonable solution on the Border will remain out of sight until the talks move onto the future relationship. After all, our leverage is minimal. In place of bargaining power, the Government has pursued a strategy of making our problems those of the EU too. That's how Ireland, along with citizens' rights and money, forced its way onto the EU's agenda.

Since he became Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar has broadened this approach by placing responsibility for providing a solution to the Border firmly in the UK's court. Private polling indicates strong public support for this new stance.

The difficulty for the Taoiseach is that the EU doesn't really care very much about Brexit or, indeed, Ireland. Merkel and Macron have already moved on to more important items like the immigration crisis, Russian aggression and a grand new Franco-German bargain on the Eurozone. So, despite the rhetoric from May and Merkel, most EU insiders expect some type of customs frontier with Northern Ireland, either from 2019 in the event of a hard Brexit or following a transition and new relationship between the UK and the EU. It is hard to see any other way of reconciling Britain's domestic politics with the requirements of EU membership.

Inside Government, there is a recognition of this reality that dares not speak its name and an acceptance that our interests are beginning to diverge from the EU. And yet there is no indication that this will lead to a change in our approach. Quite the opposite. In public at least, the Government will remain firmly in lockstep with the EU, not out of principle but hard-headed pragmatism. If we end up with a hard Brexit or the UK leaving the customs union and single market after a transition, insiders believe that we'll need special treatment and financial aid from the EU to adapt. There is, they say, zero chance of that if we separate ourselves from the EU. If we isolate ourselves, the argument goes, we will be on our own. The EU will also feel that it owes us nothing if we try to play both sides.

The problem with an approach predicated entirely on pragmatism is that it fails to recognise that the UK is not a rational actor and a continuation of the EU's hardline approach is likely to exacerbate this irrationality with a hard Brexit in 2019 the likely destination. Look at the convulsions within her cabinet and the Tory party and it is clear that Theresa May is already at the limit of her capacity to deliver a meaningful deal. Whoever replaces her will be committed to the hardest of all Brexits.

As Britain's only remaining ally in the EU, Leo Varadkar must marry pragmatism with principle. He should leave Merkel and Macron under no doubt that pushing the UK too hard will end in ruin for Ireland - and the EU.

Until Met Eireann decided to downgrade Storm Brian, the last time a bomb nearly went off in Dublin was when Monsieur Trichet told Michael Noonan he couldn't burn the bondholders. As he reflects on the interminable hell that Brexit has become this weekend, Leo Varadkar might want to dust off that old demarche in his next chat with Angela Merkel.

Sunday Independent

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