Tuesday 23 July 2019

Liam Weeks: 'We've got stuck in a Brexit Groundhog Day - and are missing the point about what really matters in Ireland'

The chaos and confusion of Brexit has diverted our leaders from vital issues, writes Liam Weeks

OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’, Leo Varadkar could use his time to focus on politics apart from Brexit. Or maybe learn to play boogie-woogie piano
OPPORTUNITY KNOCKS: Like Bill Murray in ‘Groundhog Day’, Leo Varadkar could use his time to focus on politics apart from Brexit. Or maybe learn to play boogie-woogie piano

Liam Weeks

Most of us have probably seen, or at least heard of, the film Groundhog Day. Its central premise revolves around a tv weatherman, played by the wonderful Bill Murray, who gets stuck in a time loop, and keeps waking up on the same day, Groundhog Day - over and over again.

Every morning he wakes to the same Sonny and Cher song I Got You Babe, to the same inane chitchat from a local DJ, and sees and hears the same characters do the same thing over and over again. It's felt this way for a quite a while with Brexit.

Every morning when we switch on the radio, it's as if we're hearing the same news story on a repeat loop. It's been 24/7 Brexit for a long time now, so I'm sure we can all empathise with Bill Murray. Except the difference is that for us it's not the same day. Murray gradually realised how to deal with the situation, and reaped the advantages of a time loop, learning how to ice-sculpt, play the piano, and engage in some self-reflection.

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However - unlike Murray, who got to move on and learned how to prosper while the rest of the world stood still on Groundhog Day - we are experiencing the opposite.

While we are standing still because of Brexit-mania, the world and its affairs are moving on - and this is the real, but hidden cost of Brexit.

Most of the analysis to date has been on the potential costs for Ireland when Brexit happens. But this is missing a trick. Brexit has already cost us a great deal. And I'm not referring to the hits already experienced by some manufacturing and agri-food sectors, such as mushroom-growing.

I'm talking about the opportunity cost of all the hours and effort devoted by the Government and its officials to Brexit for the past three years.

Yes, there has been much praise for the work of our civil service in preparing for this event, but at what cost?

Those working in government have just a limited number of hours to focus on a limited number of issues. More time spent addressing one policy means less time spent on another.

And Brexit is an issue that has taken time away from all government policies, perhaps unlike any other heretofore event in living memory.

So, for example, in the no-deal Brexit contingency plan the Government published just before Christmas, it claimed that at least 45 emergency legislative changes would be needed to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, including more than 20 pieces of primary legislation.

As this is about the half the volume of legislation usually considered by the Dail in a full year, it is easy to imagine the effect this can have on the Government's usual day-to-day running of the country.

Already, ministers have been asked to identify essential non-Brexit-related legislation, which means that everything else is going to be pushed to one side while we wait and see what our neighbours do.

Has this preoccupation with Brexit resulted in the Government dropping the ball in a number of policy areas? The Children's Hospital and the nurses' strike are two issues that immediately spring to mind. Need I mention also the so-called National Broadband Plan and the ongoing housing crisis?

How can the Government adequately deal with these matters when so much of its time is taken up with Brexit? Is it simply engaging in a form of crisis management to run the country - with the consequence that most of the focus outside of Brexit is on day-to-day issues, with little opportunity to develop long-term policies in other areas?

Perhaps unwittingly, the Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe recently warned against the dangers of such a fixation with Brexit. Speaking at an investment event organised by the National Treasury Management Agency last week, Minister Donohoe was reported to have said: "Brexit is a huge challenge for us, but it can't divert our attention away from the fact that there are many other forms of change that are happening and we need to look at how the Irish economy can be best placed to deal with it."

These changes are the developments taking place while we are stuck in a Brexit time-loop. For one, they include the ongoing trade war between the US and China. This looks like it could soon incorporate Venezuela and some African countries, where China has been engaged in ''debt-trap diplomacy'' aid that could further antagonise the US.

This affects Ireland because the openness of our economy means we are potentially exposed to a disruption in world trade caused by tariff wars. The world economy in general is expected to slow down after some bullish years post the Great Recession, and our globalised nature leaves us dangerously exposed.

When the world economy sneezes, we catch a cold.

From a European perspective, Italy has just slid back into recession, and the German economy contracted in the latter part of 2018. Minister Donohoe euphemistically acknowledged that "the normalisation of the European monetary policy may not be as smooth as projected".

There remains also an ongoing threat from the forces of populism and authoritarianism, as democratic values are rowed back in a number of countries.

The Freedom House organisation, which measures the level of global freedom, stated last week that it declined in 2018, for the 13th consecutive year. Of the 41 countries continuously ranked free from 1985 to 2005, some 22 have experienced net declines in their freedom over the past five years.

Hungary, where Viktor Orban's government has been eroding civil liberties, was demoted to the status of ''partly free'', making it the first non-free member of the EU. Serbia, a candidate member, is now also deemed ''partly free'', and there were considerable declines in Slovakia and Montenegro. Further threats on the EU's borders exist in the form of growing authoritarian tendencies in Turkey and Russia.

And so our Government needs to keep its eye firmly on the ball in other courts - and not be solely distracted by Brexit.

Despite the impression our politicians might give by flying around Europe meeting with various leaders, we will have little influence on the final Brexit outcome. No matter how much Messrs Varadkar and Coveney might think they have persuaded the EU to take a firm stance on the backstop, the EU is not in the habit of listening to its smaller member states - so why would it start now?

We are just fortunate at the moment that Irish and EU interests align, but we can't assume it will always be this way. It certainly wasn't when the European Central Bank demanded the Irish Government bail out our non-performing banks. Nor when the Troika insisted on a range of austerity measures.

Rather than playing up to the EU and hoping it delivers a Brexit outcome that is favourable to us, the Government needs to devote more energies to other pressing issues at home and abroad.

While it waits to see what Brexit means, the Taoiseach could take his lead from Bill Murray in Groundhog Day and use this time to better improve our lot. Focus on health and housing for a start, and other such policies that have lost the attention of Government because of Brexit.

And prepare for other contingencies outside of Brexit. We don't want to be looking back in five years wondering how we missed a potential threat. Yes, Brexit is important, but our gaze shouldn't end on British shores.

Dr Liam Weeks is director of the MSc Government & Politics at University College Cork

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