Sunday 25 August 2019

May has gone from Remain to reading straight from the Ukip handbook

Phil Hogan
Phil Hogan

Shane Coleman

Forget talk of a 'hard' Brexit, from our point of view it's a brutal one. If a week is a long time in politics, then 30 of them must be an eternity - long enough certainly for Theresa May to transform from a Remain supporter (albeit perhaps a lukewarm one) to the advocate of a Brexit that is almost straight from the Ukip handbook.

There were some honeyed words from the British prime minister yesterday, particularly in relation to Ireland and the common travel area between the two countries.

But they paled into insignificance when compared to the underlying message she put forward: 'We're leaving and we want a deal on our terms that gives us all the benefits of EU membership (free trade, co-operation on security, etc) but none of the unpalatable stuff (free movement of people, the European Court of Justice and so on)'.

Whatever the reaction to the speech of EU leaders in public, it would be a surprise if members didn't find it all a little hard to stomach. "Where is the give for all the take?" was the immediate Twitter response of the Czech European minister Tomas Prouza. He has a point. If the other member governments were to grant May her bespoke Brexit, the very integrity of the EU would be fatally damaged. And that's simply not going to happen.

Seven months ago, as we struggled to digest the implications of the shock referendum result, it was still possible to hope common sense would prevail. Surely Britain would find a way to stay in the single market or perhaps go for the European Economic Area/Norway option. It would be economic madness not to do so.

That clearly was wishful thinking. As is so often the case, political expediency is trumping sound economics. May's continued leadership of the Conservative party depends on her delivering a 'hard' Brexit. The Labour party is as close to being irrelevant as any main opposition party can be. The Liberal Democrats, the one genuinely pro-Europe party, is too small to make a difference. Which is ironic, as the party that is really driving this whole agenda, Ukip, has just one seat in parliament. So much for giving control back to Westminster.

The implications for Ireland of all this? Where do we start? The current invisible border between north and south will inevitably become more visible - the only question is 'to what extent?' If the UK is outside the customs union, then it obviously calls into question the free movement of goods.

And even if it succeeds in getting the kind of customs agreement that allows tariff-free access to EU markets, that won't cover the free movement of people, around which there are obvious security issues.

They word from Brussels is that Michel Barnier, the EU's chief Brexit negotiator, is sympathetic to Ireland's unique situation in relation to the UK. However, the worry is that the goodwill in the Commission, and among other EU member countries, will wear thin if May and Britain are seen to be trying to have their cake and eat it.

Britain and Ireland have been firm allies around the Brussels negotiating table since both countries joined the EEC. But Phil Hogan may be right when he highlights the dangers of aligning ourselves too closely to the UK.

Building new alliances with like-minded countries, though, will be easier said than done.

Irish exporters to Britain - which takes around half of the exports of our indigenous firms - will be appalled at the huge level of uncertainty. May's speech was long on firm assertions of what will happen, but pretty short on how it would be achieved.

It took the EU and Canada eight years to reach a pretty minimal free-trade agreement, how long will it take to agree a far more complex one with the UK? We're looking at a minimum of two years for Brexit to happen; then it seems some form of transitional arrangement and, after that, it's anybody's guess as to the timescale for reaching a trade or customs agreement.

There has been fighting talk here in recent months that Britain's EU difficulty could be Ireland's opportunity. There may indeed be scope to attract companies from Britain that need access to the single market. In that context, it was staggering that there was no mention of the City of London/financial services - which account for 12pc of the UK's GDP - in May's speech.

However, any potential benefit for us could be more than offset if May, or some future prime minister, follows through on the threat to "change the basis of Britain's economic model" and slashes corporation taxes - turning the UK, in the words of Jeremy Corbyn, "into a bargain-basement tax haven".

That could be potentially devastating for our own economic model. And, in that scenario, for our own membership of the EU and politics generally. In the short term, it could be argued that the uncertainty over how Brexit will play out will strengthen Enda Kenny's hand to stay on as Taoiseach. Expect his allies to be talking up his experience and close relationships with the likes of Merkel.

But there's a limit to how many times that card can be played. It's clear after yesterday that Brexit is going to be a drawn-out affair. It's simply not credible for Kenny's supporters to suggest he'll still be Taoiseach by the end of the process.

So, the argument could be made, why not bring in the new man or woman sooner rather than later?

Ultimately, though, this is far more important than Enda Kenny or whoever succeeds him as Taoiseach. May and Britain yesterday took a massive leap in the dark, almost certainly for the wrong reasons.

And nobody knows where it'll take them - and, by extension, us.

Shane Coleman presents Newstalk Breakfast weekdays from 7am.

Irish Independent

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