Sunday 8 December 2019

Martina Devlin: 'Most in the UK know the imperfect EU is still better than a crash-out Brexit - but a grim fatalism has set in and time is running out'

'Unless something changes significantly in a tight timeframe, we're looking at a slide towards mayhem for our nearest neighbour. And Ireland will be caught in the undertow.'
'Unless something changes significantly in a tight timeframe, we're looking at a slide towards mayhem for our nearest neighbour. And Ireland will be caught in the undertow.'
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Writing about 'Gulliver's Travels' to his friend Alexander Pope, Jonathan Swift described his chief aim in composing the famous satire as being "to vex the world rather than divert it". The same could be said of Brexit.

One wonders what Dean Swift, with his gift for what Yeats called "savage indignation", would have made of Britain's bid to take back control with action that can only lead to a collapse in the living standards of its people - especially those who are just about managing.

The dean was convinced that humankind has an innate capacity to reason. He also believed that as a species we often fail to use that gift, unfortunately. Certainly, logic appears to have vanished in Britain. Outside the EU it will be poorer, with fewer friends and dwindling influence. Yet onwards it drifts towards disaster. It's as if those who know better are gripped by a spirit of defeatism that nothing can be done to prevent the Brexit debacle.

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Come what may, the clock is ticking - and not in a benign, Big Ben manner. Rather, it's like the timepiece inside Captain Hook's crocodile-shaped nemesis.

So, in these salad days of 2019, the burning question is whether sanity will be restored to Britain on January 15? That's when the House of Commons is due to be balloted on Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement, which provides for an orderly Brexit. The headcount is expected to take place just six days before the last possible date by which Britain may change its mind about a second Brexit plebiscite - the People's Vote on which some pin their hopes.

Mrs May has postponed a vote once already because the parliamentary arithmetic was against her. Currently, she is engaged in a European diplomatic offensive, trying to convert the backstop to temporary status. It's a shame that Ireland can't help Britain but the only assistance it wants from us is to yield on the backstop. An impossibility. Irish interests must be safeguarded, along with the rights of Irish citizens in the North, and the backstop is the best guarantee.

What next? Mrs May could delay the Commons vote yet again to increase the probability that what ensues is either her deal or no deal. High stakes indeed. And all because of what one writer in the 'New Statesman' has described as "sullen nationalism".

Unless something changes significantly in a tight timeframe, we're looking at a slide towards mayhem for our nearest neighbour. And Ireland will be caught in the undertow.

Economic damage on a severe scale is likely. Conscious of some if not all negative repercussions looming, a number of gung-ho types are invoking the bulldog spirit: Britons are at their best when the odds are stacked against them, they say, summoning up everything from the defeat of the Spanish Armada to Dunkirk. Reckless doesn't begin to describe such minimisation of the economic fallout.

Perhaps the best solution is for the EU and Britain to agree to an extension to Article 50. While it won't solve anything, at least it will stretch the deadline.

Meanwhile, the Irish Cabinet met on Thursday to discuss an increasingly probable cliff-edge Brexit. Contingency plans include speeding up the hiring of 600 customs officers, plus additional staff for Revenue and Agriculture. Ireland is asking for emergency aid from the EU in the event of no deal.

Europe has identified 14 potential sources of major disruption where Britain toppling out will impact on citizens and businesses in the 27 member states. Areas include financial services, air transport, customs and climate policy. Ireland will be affected disproportionately and 45 pieces of new legislation will be needed here.

From Britain, we keep hearing that even if it crashes out, at least the people's will is exercised. Three cheers for democracy!

Really? Britons may have voted to leave but not in a smash-bang-wallop fashion. That weasel phrase "a managed no-deal" has started surfacing, as though the no-deal option is somehow controllable. It isn't.

Crashing out means no transition period. And that's just for starters. Currently, as of March 30, with no Withdrawal Agreement passed, enormous disruption will ensue in Britain (with reverberations in Ireland). From that date, just 84 days away, EU laws and institutions lose all legal standing in Britain. No British planes can fly through European airspace unless by the EU's express permission, no British lorries can cross European land except with the EU's say-so, and no British people can enter Europe without visas.

Open borders boost trade; shut borders damage it. Free movement of people also enhances trade, allowing for job mobility. The British economy is intersected with Europe's in myriad ways and a sudden shutdown can only harm Britain.

Are those outcomes really an expression of the British people's will? Whatever the Brexit ultras claim, that's not putting the great back into Great Britain. Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others are taking unacceptable risks with more vulnerable people's incomes. Some of the fanatics appear to be motivated by personal ambition rather than the national welfare.

A snap election may be one way to avoid the cliff-face scenario. Presumably, that's what Jeremy sit-on-his-hands-and-wait-it-out Corbyn is banking on. He has wasted opportunity after opportunity to demonstrate leadership in this matter.

His behaviour is only logical, according to Dean Swift's yardstick for reasoning, if we deduce that his endgame is to become prime minister of Britain outside the EU. That's according to Matthew Parris, 'London Times' columnist and a former Conservative Party MP, speaking on Pat Kenny's Newstalk radio show this week.

Parris says there are people in Britain who believe brinkmanship will deliver a sweeter deal.

David Davis, former Brexit secretary, is one of them. Rather disgracefully, he is urging Mrs May to defer the vote yet again on the basis that Europe needs Britain more than Britain needs Europe and something better will be offered at the eleventh hour. It's delusional. But some people are buying into it.

As for the DUP, that party is still busy telling British people how to be British - by protecting the union. But the unionist view of its relationship with the UK has limited traction outside the North.

There is one union which has been beneficial for Britain and also Ireland, politically and economically - the EU.

It is not perfect. It needs to contain its over-reach urges and must accept that the newer accession states won't see things Germany and France's way. But this union is preferable to trade wars, isolationism and austerity.

Many in Britain know that in their hearts yet a dangerous fatalism has set in. It must be challenged in the sliver of time which still remains.       

Irish Independent

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