Opinion Comment

Wednesday 16 January 2019

Willie Kealy: 'Every outcome on Brexit is fraught with danger'

Britain's future relationship with the EU is uncertain - and that has implications for us all

'Britain's future relationship with the EU is uncertain - and that has implications for us all' Stock image
'Britain's future relationship with the EU is uncertain - and that has implications for us all' Stock image

Willie Kealy

It would be good to be able to be reassuring that a no-deal Brexit, with a hard land border on the island of Ireland, will not happen. But you could only really believe that if you had confidence that one of the following alternative scenarios had a realistic chance of being achieved.

The first alternative is British Prime Minister Theresa May's deal that she has worked out with the EU, which includes the troublesome "backstop", aimed at ensuring there will not be a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland.

The House of Commons resumes business tomorrow. We do not know when exactly the prime minister will put this to a parliamentary vote. Supposedly, the debate will start on Wednesday and the vote would then be expected to happen next week.

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In the vote of confidence on December 11 last, which she lost, there were Tory MPs who voted against her as a message that she should go back to Europe and seek better terms. They felt there was adequate time to do that.

Now, the nearer we get to the end of March, the less they will feel that time is still on their side, so she may be tempted to run down the clock, repeating the mantra that her deal is the only way Brexit can happen, and in the meantime allowing her home secretary to whip up public fears about immigration.

But May insists she is still hoping to get "legal reassurance" from the rest of the EU that the backstop will not keep the UK permanently in a customs union, while cabinet members such as foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt talk about "when she comes back with those reassurances".

But it seems unlikely any of the 27 other EU leaders are in a mood to accommodate her wishes, and certainly not those of the DUP leader, Arlene Foster, who is still demanding "significant changes".

As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last week: "Clarifications, understandings, guarantees, explanations, cannot go against the spirit, or render inoperable, parts of the withdrawal agreement."

If it were otherwise, they would before now have come up with the kind of helpful fudge, advocated some time ago by that seasoned negotiator, Bertie Ahern, rather than send the UK a message to "get your act together".

Or, as the Taoiseach put it more politely: "We need to know what the UK parliament wants in terms of guarantees and clarifications."

And anyway, would a fudge at this stage worked out between the prime minister and the EU satisfy the majority of British MPs who, in the words of Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU Commission President, last week, "deeply distrust both the EU and Mrs May".

The second alternative would see May again holding off on putting her deal to Parliament so that she can continue negotiations beyond March 30. To do this, she would need to get the agreement of every one of the other 27 EU leaders, which is by no means assured.

But even if she did get that go-ahead, the extra time seems no more likely to get her what she wants. Of course, she may be hoping that if she can stretch it out long enough, the solidarity of the rest of Europe with this country could weaken.

You can see some of this tactic among hard Brexiteers, who try to characterise the backstop as the unreasonableness of the Irish Government, holding the rest of the EU to ransom.

And that is a legitimate concern for us, given that practically all our European partners, and indeed ourselves, would view Britain remaining in the European Union as the optimum solution - but, for the moment at least, not at any price.

The third alternative would see the British cabinet getting parliament to rescind the triggering of Article 50, thus bringing the whole sorry saga of Brexit to a finish. Legally, parliament has the power to take this step without recourse to the people, but it is unthinkable that they would do so. And the EU would require the decision to stay to be clearly one that is likely to be maintained, and not just a delaying tactic. However, it should be noted that Mrs May has consistently said she does not favour another referendum.

The fourth alternative would see Mrs May's deal being put to the vote and defeated, and a probable general election. That allows for the possibility of a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn.

It is not easy to pin down Mr Corbyn on just what he would do if he came to power. He calls his approach "sequential", but really, it means he wants to keep his options open. First, he wants to see the May deal defeated and Mrs May sent back to Europe "to renegotiate a customs union, form a customs union with the European Union to secure trade".

But his real goal is a general election, which he would expect to win. Then, he says, he would probably negotiate a better deal than Mrs May, though how he can realistically have a timeframe for this in mind is not clear, given that Britain would already have left the EU, unless Mrs May had secured a time extension.

Unfortunately for Mr Corbyn, who has also declined to commit to another referendum, most people in his party - 72pc in the latest poll of party members - now want a chance to vote again on the issue. So if he did become prime minister and was unable to improve on Mrs May's deal, a second vote would seem inescapable.

All the polling on Brexit carried out over the past two-and-a-half years shows a slight movement in favour of reversing Brexit. But it is not sufficient to guarantee that the vote would definitely be in favour of remaining a member of the EU - or, if it was too late for that option, of reapplying for membership.

You can see from these four alternatives that nothing is guaranteed. But it is at least obvious that every possible outcome is fraught with danger.

All of which means that when March 30 arrives, if Article 50 is still active and the British parliament has still not given its backing to a deal, the UK will simply cease to be a member of EU by default. There will be no deal and no backstop. The Border between the Republic and Northern Ireland will become the external border of the EU.

Irish government policy right now is that we would have nothing to do with the Border, but that stance might be hard to maintain if the rest of the EU gives us the job of enforcement, with all the negative consequences that move could have for the now 20-year-old Good Friday Agreement.

And the relationship with our biggest trading partner by far will become chaotic, as sterling comes under pressure and new rules and regulations contribute to the confusion of all the unknowns.

Any form of Brexit will hit the Irish economy. A no-deal Brexit will hit it hardest - so much so that Agriculture Minister Michael Creed said we would need "mega money" from the EU to cope.

The position of the Irish Government has been one of keeping the head down and hoping for the best. This appeared to be based on a belief that a no-deal scenario just would not happen because nobody wants it - not the British, with 90pc of MPs against it, not the rest of the EU leaders. So either the fragmented British parliament will cave in and back the May deal, or else pull the plug on Brexit.

But a poll of Conservative Party members last week shows that more than half of them would back a no-deal Brexit, and would, in fact, prefer that outcome to Theresa May's deal.

Belatedly, there now seems a recognition that there is a real danger of a no-deal Brexit. Measures are going to be put in place to secure the supply of medicines; on the question of food, the Taoiseach said "nobody will go hungry"; and the Dail and Seanad decks will be cleared in March for 45 separate pieces of legislation to deal with all the "unknowns" out there.

In fairness, until we know more, there isn't a lot else that can be done at this stage.

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