by Frank Schnittger
Wed Sep 19th, 2018 at 10:56:46 AM EST
We're now moving into the Brexit negotiation end-zone with EU leaders trying to give Theresa May as much cover as they can ahead of the Conservative and Labour Party conferences from September 23rd to October 3rd. After that they will expect significant concessions form the UK side particularly on the Irish border back-stop to clinch a deal.
But the UK side is singing an altogether different tune and are doubling down on their reneging on last December's deal on the backstop. They claim that allowing N. Ireland to remain within the Customs Union would shatter the constitutional integrity of the UK, and that "no British Prime Minister would agree to this".
For the Irish government, this represents a particularly difficult dilemma, because a "no deal" Brexit - now being re-branded as a "World Trade rules Brexit" - could be just as damaging to the Irish economy as to the UK. Something has to give, and the UK is betting that the Irish government, or EU support for the Irish position, will be the first to fold.
It's a bit of a fool's errand to try and guess how Leo Varadker and his government. will react in that scenario. He is currently riding high in the polls chiefly because of what is seen as a robust and sure-footed response to Brexit so far. An orthodox conservative neo-liberal on the economy and a liberal on social issues, he leads Fine Gael, the least nationalist party in the state. But Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail are sure to make hay if he is seen as being weak on the border issue.
In one sense he can't go wrong by taking a hard line on the border: conservative and moderate non-nationalist voters have nowhere else to go if Fine Gael takes an uncharacteristically hard line. But Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein will also be the first to blame him if the negotiations stall and a no deal Brexit looms. They are unprincipled enough to blame him regardless of the outcome in what is always likely to be (at best) a damage mitigation exercise.
The other thing Varadker has going for him is that he is likely to become the focus of a sustained hate campaign in the British media if he is seen as standing in the way of "their" Brexit deal. Nothing unites Irish people more than an attack by the British establishment or media on one of their own.
The question is will the EU27 maintain their solidarity with Ireland when the prospect of "no deal" becomes a reality. Up until now that solidarity has been exemplary, although there have been suggestions that an Irish concession on corporate taxation, and particularly on a European digital tax will be expected as a quid pro quo.
My best guess is that it is simply inconceivable to UK Tories that Ireland and the EU27 will not fold when faced with the reality of what a no deal Brexit will entail. Boris Johnson has described the border issue as an insignificant gnat which can be sorted out by technology and even Barnier has requested more details on North South trade in order to see whether a "trusted trader" scheme might be feasible as a way of avoiding customs controls at the border.
I would suspect no one will be too concerned if some UK goods leak across the border in private cars or small vans provided these are not then re-packaged and re-invoiced as "Irish" exports to the rest of the EU. The issue is how the EU can avoid British originating goods using Ireland as a back door to the European market by the container load. Would customs checks at Irish sea and air ports be sufficient to avoid this risk, and how would this impact on bone fide Irish exports to the EU?
Some fudge seems likely, if only to get a minimal deal over the line so that more permanent arrangements can be negotiated during the transition period. What I am less sure about is whether such a fudge would pass muster in the House of Commons. Boris Johnson & co. seem to be only looking for an opportunity to tear the whole house of cards down, almost regardless of the consequences. For them, there has to be an opportunity to clinch a better deal later on: otherwise how can he topple May and achieve power?
Logically he should wait until after March 29th. when the economic consequences of Brexit start to become clearer, and May's popularity wanes still further. But would the Winston Churchill in him not want to be the Prime Minister, waving the flag, as Big Ben intones Brexit hour? Never discount the power of ego in politics.