Friday 20 September 2019

Editorial: 'Keep calm heads and be prepared'

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Fabrizio Bensch/Reuters


Trying to figure out the mind of Boris Johnson has become an obsession among European leaders, but it is a fruitless task, because everything he says seems to contradict a previous utterance.

Right now you would be tempted, based on his pronouncements, to think him either foolish or reckless. But he is no fool. He claims he wants the UK to leave the EU with a deal but makes no effort to bring that about, suggesting instead that it is up to the rest of Europe to present him with a solution. He says it will do this only if it can be convinced the UK is willing to leave without a deal, and those within the British parliament who seek to prevent a no-deal exit are interfering with this strategy and diminishing his chances of achieving a last-minute deal.

We do not know if those in Britain opposed to a no-deal exit will succeed either in the courts or through new legislation in the very small window the prime minister will have left them after proroguing parliament. What we believe we do know is that the rest of the EU is not going to cave in at the last moment and agree to Mr Johnson's terms. And very few believe that his intention to "step up the tempo" of negotiations with Brussels will produce anything of value. So if the prime minister is as good as his latest word, we are headed for what is now being called a "disorderly" Brexit. That being so, what can the Irish Government and Irish industry and commerce do at this stage? The truth is, very little.

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A radical preparation for a crash-out Brexit would involve replacing Britain as a source of raw material, a market for goods or a land bridge for other markets. But these would be drastic steps to take in preparation for something that still might, just might, not happen. And if it does happen, then we can start to implement that approach. And no doubt, new markets and new suppliers have already been researched by those who know they would be first affected. We might even see this challenge as an opportunity, with radical ideas like replacing vulnerable vegetable imports with home-grown produce.

But in the meantime, there seems little point in trying to cajole or berate Mr Johnson. If he has a concern about the effect a crash-out Brexit could have on the British economy or on the Good Friday Agreement, it is far from obvious. It seems much more likely that the prime minister is resigned to Britain leaving the EU without a deal, and then calling a general election in which he will blame the intransigence of Brussels and particularly Dublin; the treachery of those Labour and some Conservative MPs who sought to frustrate the will of the people as expressed in a referendum three years ago; and point to the irrelevance of the Brexit Party.

In this way, Mr Johnson is convinced he would be returned to power with a decent majority and could rule without the frustrating dependence on the DUP, supremely confident in his own ability to deal with all Britain's post-Brexit problems in what he calls the "implementation stage". If that is the high-stakes hand Mr Johnson is willing to recklessly gamble with, then no amount of diplomacy will deter him.

The rest of Europe, including the Irish government, can continue only to keep cool heads, hope for the best but prepare for the worst.

Sunday Independent

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