Wednesday 21 August 2019

Ray Kinsella: 'Our Government must deal with Farage - and stop clinging to the Backstop'

Influential: Nigel Farage’s party picked up the biggest single share of the vote in the UK European elections. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg
Influential: Nigel Farage’s party picked up the biggest single share of the vote in the UK European elections. Photo: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Ray Kinsella

We need to talk about Nigel Farage, that is. His newly formed Brexit Party was the standout winner in the European elections in the UK.

Reluctant as they will be to admit it, the Irish political establishment will now have to meaningfully engage with Mr Farage.

It's the Backstop, of course, that's the dealbreaker.

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For the EU, it keeps the UK impaled to the EU.

Ireland has mired itself in political hyperbole about the prospective risks to the Good Friday Agreement of changes to the Backstop - it also nurtures the illusion of Ireland being at the centre of the 'EUverse'.

For Westminster, it threatens the break-up of the UK - which is why the May/EU withdrawal agreement containing the Backstop will never get through the House of Commons.

Mr Farage knows that and he now has a mandate to insist on a change in the Backstop - or to insist on Brexit on October 31.

The Irish Government, tacitly empowered by Brussels, has contrived to create this impasse.

It has to - and will - change. The Government has to invite Mr Farage to tea, metaphorically, of course, in a meeting room at the Berlaymont.

Watch out for clichés: "The outcome of the European elections is a matter for the UK."

Beware the assertions: "Ireland's position has been quite clearly set out by Mr Barnier." It won't do. The Government will have to engage with Mr Farage. It's for just such exigencies that the Department of Foreign Affairs exists.

Mr Farage's critics point out that the performance of the LibDems, who stood on the single-issue platform of Remain, demonstrates the strength of voter opposition to Mr Farage.

That misses the point. Boosted as the LibDems were by protest votes, from Tory grandee Michael Heseltine to Labour pundit Alastair Campbell, the Brexit Party still emerged, by several lengths, the winner.

In doing so, it has left the established political mainstream in pieces and in chaos. Whatever way you cut it, UK voters have spoken - again - and more informed than was the case back in 2017. Brexit.

This changes the political calculus for the Irish Government. Brussels is no longer dealing with the single most inept administration in modern British history. Neither is the Irish Government.

Every candidate for the leadership of the Conservative Party - and, therefore, the government - knows that in the absence of changes to Mrs May's toxic withdrawal agreement, the UK will leave on October 31. That affects Ireland and, crucially, it affects any future UK/EU trade arrangements when it gets to that stage in the Article 50 process.

The obstacle to this, of course, is the opposition in the House of Commons to a no-deal Brexit.

But each of the main parties know - as do the LibDems - that a refusal by Brussels, aka France and Germany, to mitigate the Backstop and a failure, in these circumstances to leave on October 31, will mean a general election - an election which the Brexit Party are likely to win.

It's a second-best situation for every stakeholder. But it may well be what it takes to deliver on the UK referendum.

And then? The conventional wisdom espoused by the Remainers, notably the 'Financial Times', is that the EU 27 will continue to insist that the withdrawal agreement cannot be renegotiated. But it doesn't have to be renegotiated - just the small but pivotally important part of it called the Backstop.

Game theory suggests that all Brussels has to do is to sit back and watch the UK self-destruct. France has been very clear that exit comes at a price - and that's not just the £39bn.

But President Macron has been mauled in the recent elections - he is no longer the force he was a year or two ago.

Chancellor Merkel, too, has been chastened by recent elections and will be gone in six months.

Jean-Claude Juncker is about to depart. The centre of gravity in the European Parliament has shifted too.

What all of this means is that the implacable refusal to look again at the Backstop looks increasingly contrived.

It will make less and less sense to the new political regime in Europe who want a fresh start.

There is increasing support for a rebalancing of the hegemony that marked the last decade and greater respect for national autonomy, aka nationalism.

That was the catalyst for Brexit in the first place.

Rebalancing will come. It will change the EU mindset on the Backstop and it will leave Ireland's present stance horribly vulnerable.

Professor Mervyn King, former governor of the Bank of England, got it absolutely right when he pointed out that there's a case for exit and there's a case for remain, but there's no case for pretending to leave and really remaining while lacking any influence or respect.

Mr Farage knows that. He knows that 'Project Fear' will shrivel under the pressures of competitive markets, exporters who want to export to the UK - and a new political dynamic in Europe.

The Irish Government - or, with an election looming, its successor - needs to wise up and smell the coffee.

Irish Independent

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