Wednesday 23 January 2019

Time is running out as the real Brexit test looms

Team Leo must start serious preparations for all EU outcomes - including hard Brexit, writes Lisa Chambers

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Photo: Frank McGrath

Lisa Chambers

It would be wise for Government to heed the warning given by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker when he addressed a joint sitting of the Dail and Seanad last Thursday: he cautioned that although a ''no deal'' scenario is unlikely, it is entirely possible and we should prepare for a hard Brexit.

We are now two years post the Brexit referendum and six months since we were told the backstop had been agreed and we are still no closer to a solution to the Irish issues. While other withdrawal issues have mostly been resolved, namely the withdrawal bill and citizens' rights, no one has managed to come up with a workable solution to the Irish border issue that both the UK and Irish governments can agree to. If we are honest, it is difficult to see how Westminster can deliver something that Ireland can accept and so we have a stalemate.

The focus of ''Team Leo'' to date has been to over-spin short-term developments as big political wins and in doing so, he has failed to give a true and accurate picture of the genuine state of play of the Brexit negotiations.

Last December, the language used by the Taoiseach to describe the backstop as being "cast iron", "rock solid" and "bulletproof" gave the impression that a binding agreement had been reached and evidently that was not the case. It is clear the Taoiseach and Tanaiste massively over-sold December's deal and got carried away with the uncritical media coverage they received. Instead of showing some restraint and working on rebuilding strained relations, they decided instead to loudly congratulate themselves as new national saviours.

This spin approach is not without consequences, it had at the time, the effect of allowing complacency to set in across the business and farming community because our Government basically told us everything was fine. Now we are in a situation where the majority of Brexit-affected businesses are not adequately prepared.

The mantra coming from Government is that to prepare would be to admit defeat and they have adopted a defiant wait-and-see attitude, which I think will ultimately come back to haunt us. There is nothing defeatist about preparing for all possible outcomes and that must include a hard Brexit.

The Taoiseach and Tanaiste have not taken kindly to any criticism of their handling of Brexit and the tendency is to accuse opposition of not wearing the ''green jersey'' whenever any probing is done. This is the wrong approach, we are all part of ''team Ireland'' and constructive criticism should be welcomed and utilised; no political party has a monopoly on Brexit.

As part of its spin agenda, Fine Gael has now started to talk up an election and has attempted to use Brexit as the basis for wanting to seek a new mandate. The ''secret'' polling and use of focus groups revealed last week showed Leo's eagerness for an early election, despite publicly stating the country needed stability whilst navigating Brexit. The country would be better served if Leo concentrated less on his own popularity and more on the job of government and dealing with Brexit.

The visits from both Michel Barnier in May and Jean-Claude Juncker last week have no doubt provided welcome cover for the Taoiseach as the pressure intensifies to provide reassurances around the Irish issues. It is, of course, good to have these exchanges and it was important for the Oireachtas and our citizens to hear the reassurances from both men standing on Irish soil, that Europe's support for Ireland is unwavering and, to quote Junker, "Ireland will come first" in these negotiations. However, it does not change the fact and the reality that we still have no progress on the backstop and the Irish issues. In fact, no one can answer the question, what happens if the UK crashes out of the EU next March and we have no withdrawal treaty and no transition period? What happens to the border issue in that instance when we will effectively border a Third country that is outside of the EU? I know from discussions I have had in Brussels with the Article 50 task force that protecting the integrity of the single market is an absolute priority for the EU.

The Tanaiste was in fighting form in May when he demanded that we see "significant progress" on the Irish issues at the June council meeting. This ''deadline'' has now evaporated.

The frustration at the lack of progress is shared across the board and Juncker acknowledged this when he addressed the Oireachtas, saying "we need more answers and fewer new questions".

As Micheal Martin said to Jean-Claude Juncker in the Dail last week, there comes a point where we have to stop assuming that the British government is capable of offering a solution and to start working on one ourselves.

We may have had the impression here in Ireland that the June council meeting was going to be all about Ireland and Brexit, certainly that's the impression the Tanaiste gave. However, if you look at the agenda for the June council meeting you will see that Brexit is fourth on the list, coming after migration, economics and finance, and security and defence. We are certainly not the top priority despite what we may like to think. The EU has many challenges, in particular the migration crises affecting the southern Mediterranean member states and the emerging trade war with the United States.

It has been known for some time that the June council meeting was not going to deliver any real progress and so all focus now turns to the October council meeting where the complex issues relating to Ireland will be decided at the eleventh hour. This has arguably been the UK strategy all along and this will be the real test for Government - can they deliver a legally binding backstop and solutions to the Irish issues before the UK manages to get its way and move on to future trade talks?

TD Lisa Chambers is the Fianna Fail spokesperson on Brexit

Sunday Independent

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