by Frank Schnittger
Sun Nov 19th, 2017 at 02:15:34 AM EST
Leo Varadker has been upsetting a few people in the UK:
The SUN Editorial
THE SUN SAYS Ireland's naive young prime minister should shut his gob on Brexit and grow up.
Leo Varadkar may not like Brexit but he needs to accept it's happening
We are Ireland's biggest trading partner and nearest neighbour.
The effects of a "hard Brexit" could be catastrophic.
Yet Varadkar's rookie diplomacy, puerile insults and threats to veto trade negotiations are bringing it ever closer.
We can only assume his arrogance stems from a delusion that he can single-handedly stop Brexit.
Indeed Ireland's political establishment clearly believes we can be forced to vote the "right" way at a second referendum, just as they made their citizens do over the EU Lisbon Treaty they initially rejected.
It is not going to happen.
David Davis rightly names France and Germany as the roadblocks to progress, even as other EU nations want a deal.
He should not overlook the showboating obstinacy of Ireland's Varadkar, a man increasingly out of his depth.
The cause of the Sun's ire is probably a gradual hardening of Ireland's position in the Brexit negotiations. Unwilling to be fobbed off with vague promises of a "frictionless, invisible border", the Irish Government have been demanding clarity on exactly how such a border would work in practise. Acutely aware that Ireland's negotiating leverage will all but disappear once the Brexit talks move onto the second stage of trade and transition, Varadker has been holding out for clarity on the border issue first.
Brexit talks deadlocked until hard Border off table, says Varadkar
The UK's decision to "unilaterally" rule out important options in the Brexit talks has prompted Ireland and the EU to set their own non-negotiable red lines, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told the British prime minister, Theresa May, on Friday.
It was necessary to do so, he said to "set the parameters" of the next phase of talks, on trade and the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union."What we want to take off the table, before we even talk about trade, is any idea that there would be a hard Border, a physical Border, or a Border resembling the past . . . Then we'd be happy to move on to phase two," the Taoiseach told journalists about their bilateral meeting on the fringes of the European Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth, in Gothenburg.
The meeting was forthright, he said. "Nothing changed today. But what was useful were the frank exchanges. Each clearly understands the other's position."
At the heart of the deadlock is the Irish and EU insistence that the UK explain now how it can preserve a soft, frictionless Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, while the UK insists that the issue cannot be tackled until the EU agrees to move to discussion of phase-two issues.
The Irish government's preferred solution is for the UK to remain within the Single Market and Customs Union, and, failing that, for Northern Ireland to remain in. However this latter solution would require customs controls "in the Irish Sea" between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, something that is absolutely anathema to the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on whom the Tories depend for their slim parliamentary majority, and who view any customs controls between N. Ireland and GB as being a step on the slippery slope towards a united Ireland.
The Irish government is well aware of this difficulty for Theresa May's government, but that simply isn't their problem. The re-emergence of a hard border within Ireland would put the peace process at risk, greatly damage the Irish economy, and sound the death knell for any Irish government which countenanced it. This is particularly now the case with Gerry Adams retiring as leader of Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams is widely expected to be replaced by his deputy leader, Mary Lou McDonald who, together with N. Ireland Sinn Fein Leader Michelle O'Neill (who replaced Martin McGuinness) would represent a new generation of Sinn Fein leaders untainted by association with the IRA.
Sinn Fein's association with the IRA has been the major factor holding back it's electoral progress in Ireland, and with two relatively young and telegenic female leaders untarnished by association with violence at the helm, could be expected to make considerable progress in future elections putting Varadker's Fine Gael led government's future at risk. With Sinn Fein only 1,000 votes behind the DUP in the last Northern Ireland Assembly elections, it may also help Sinn Fein become the largest party in N. Ireland. The stakes are therefore very high for both the Irish government and the DUP.
I doubt the Irish government expects Theresa May to commit hari kari by ditching the DUP overnight. Private assurances that the UK government would not stand in the way of N. Ireland remaining in the Customs Union and Single market might suffice at this stage, with that concession only formally given at the eleventh hour when the final Brexit deal is being finalised. Theresa May will find it extremely difficult to get a majority in parliament for any Brexit deal in any case, so a general election on the outcome of the negotiations seems likely, making continued support from the DUP moot.
That solution would be analogous to the other extremely contentious issue in the first stage of Brexit negotiations: the size of any financial settlement between the UK and EU for outstanding liabilities the UK has incurred within the EU. The EU is not insisting that the UK actually agrees to a concrete figure at this stage, merely on a methodology for calculating one. The UK would thus also give cast iron guarantees there would be no need for a "hard" Irish land border, but the mechanism for achieving this - N. Ireland's continued membership of the Single market and Customs Union - would only be revealed in the final Brexit Agreement. Perfidious Albion reprised.
This approach is also reflected in EU negotiating documents which speak of the need for the maintenance of regulatory equivalence between North and south if a hard border is to be avoided. My preferred solution is that Northern Ireland would be designated a special economic zone of which there are thousands in the world - the first one having been created in Shannon - and which have no necessary distinct political or sovereign status in the countries of which they are part. DUP sensitivities could be mollified by stressing that such a status is of no Sovereign significance whatsoever, and, indeed, could have many advantages for N. Ireland. UK businesses seeking unimpeded access to the Single Market post Brexit could achieve this by relocating part of their operations to the North.
In many ways the UK government set this trap for itself with lots of flowery prose about how the border would be invisible, frictionless, unlike the border of the past, and somehow enabled by new technology. Brexiteers like Boris Johnson appear to regard political rhetoric as a substitute for concrete practicality, the details of which can be worked out by the little people afterwards. Indeed, if the border could be made to be so invisible and frictionless, what is their objection to it being located in the Irish sea?
Their belief that the Irish government could be bought off by vacuous promises probably reflects the attitude also evident in the SUN editorial quoted above: how dare the Irish stand in the way of the great Brexit adventure! Ireland should get with the programme and help make Brexit a success - an attitude also exhibited by the DUP.
What the DUP likes to ignore is that N. Ireland - the only place in which it has an electoral mandate - actually voted against Brexit by 56 to 44%, and so it has no mandate for its policy. While such a vote can't be conflated with a vote for a united Ireland, it does clearly indicate that a democratic majority of the people of N. Ireland voted to remain within the EU. Remaining within the Customs Union and Single Market while following Great Britain out of the EU seems like the sort of reasonable compromise between conflicting loyalties and aspirations which made the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement possible. Unfortunately the DUP doesn't do reason.
But the SUN editorial also betrays a deeper attitude amongst Brexit supporters in the UK: An attitude that the EU, and in particular, Ireland, needs the UK more than the UK needs the EU. This may be true of Ireland, but it is certainly not true of the EU as a whole. EU27 exports to the UK make up c. 4% of total EU exports, while the UK exports c. 40% of its total exports to the EU27. But more than this, it emphasises the Brexiteer view that the EU is primarily about free trade, and because it is in everyone's interest to retain free trade, the EU must, ultimately, accede to the UK's demand that it retains more or less untrammelled access to EU markets without the constraints of the Customs Union and Single market on it's ability to conclude it's own trade deals with third parties.
This is to fundamentally and perhaps wilfully misunderstand what the EU is all about. The EU is, firstly, a political union dedicated to ensuring peace in Europe by achieving ever closer political union. Economic integration is a means to that end. Germany, with the largest trade surpluses with the UK, has been quite unequivocal that the political stability of the EU trumps the immediate economic interests of it's exporting industries. If a choice has to be made between the cohesion and stability of the EU and continued free access to the UK market, it is EU stability which must win out.
Ireland, with the most to lose from a hard Brexit, also faces a very difficult choice. Brexit could be extremely disruptive if not catastrophic for our agri-food industries and Irish GDP could decline by as much as 4%. In time Irish industry could probably redirect its focus away from the UK market and attempt to replace UK exports to the EU if these are hit by high WTO tariffs. The Irish economy is currently growing at c. 5% p.a., so some slowdown could be accommodated, although the impact of Brexit would be very asymmetric and would effect border and rural areas most, areas which are not currently benefiting much from economic growth in any case.
But the impact of Brexit on the Irish political system, if not managed well, could be catastrophic from the point of view of the establishment parties. Economic and political nationalism, as exemplified by Sinn Fein, would be in the ascendant, and the future of the traditional parties - Fine Gael, Fianna Fail, and Labour - would be threatened. Although Fine Gael is perhaps the least nationalistic and most pro-free trade of these parties, Varadker is being very wise to play hard ball on the border issue. Whether he can hold his nerve as the Brexit talks teeter on the brink of collapse remains to be seen, but the survival of his government and his party as the largest party in Ireland may depend on it.
But the crunch time may be coming very soon. If the Irish Government, and by extension, the EU Council, judge that insufficient progress has been made on the initial three issues - the UK financial contribution, the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and the Irish Border - by the time of their December summit, the Brexit talks may collapse altogether, with Theresa May too weak to make sufficient concessions to get them going again. The political dynamic in the UK will move ever more precipitously in the direction of leaving the EU without any deal, in the vain hope that this threat will force the EU to dramatically soften its own position.
It is beyond the comprehension of most Brexiteers that the EU could refuse a free trade deal which, as far as they are concerned, is in everyone's interest. For them, only "politics" pejoratively understood, or a sclerotic Brussels bureaucracy could explain such a refusal. Hence the hostility towards Varadker and the indifference towards the implications for N. Ireland. Ireland is, for the UK, the weakest link in the EU chain. Break Ireland's resolve and you so the seeds of wider dissension in Europe.
Whether the Brexit talks break down in December or sometime thereafter hardly matters. Both the Irish Government and the EU are now giving more priority to preparations for a hard Brexit, up to and including a cliff edge Brexit with no deal at all. People who think this couldn't happen probably thought Trump couldn't be elected either. In my view it would be less of a surprise; It is fast becoming the probable outcome. The Irish Government is already saying that it wants guarantees there will be no hard border even in the event of a no deal Brexit. The more people talk about it, the more likely it becomes.
The December EU Council could well become a watershed moment, after which there is no stopping a slippery slide towards a no deal Brexit, with both sides retreating to entrenched positions. Theresa May has already shown little faith in the Brussels negotiating process, holding very few formal negotiating sessions and seeking to go over the heads of Michel Barnier's negotiating team by appealing directly to member state governments. The strategy seems to be to sow as much dissension amongst EU member states as possible, but as yet there are few signs that member states are willing to break ranks. And Merkel, embroiled in her own intractable coalition negotiations at home, is not in a strong position to come to her aid this time.
The Brexit denouement could come much sooner than anybody has expected: Because if the talks break down completely there is no reason why the UK should even wait until March 2019 to leave the EU. A no deal Brexit can happen in January 2018 as easily as March 2019. Of course industry will scream: They are already looking for a lengthy transitional deal to ease the pain of leaving. Wiser heads will counsel caution and delay. But will this appease the SUN readers who are taught to believe that it is only the rookie diplomacy, puerile insults, and showboating obstinacy of Ireland's naive and arrogant prime minister, Leo Varadkar, a man "increasingly out of his depth", who is holding up their glorious path to a post-Brexit nirvana?
He is unlikely to shut up, and we may be about to experience a very severe collision between competing perceptions of reality very soon. And it will not be pretty.