Richard North, 11/03/2017  

By the time the UK was ready to invoke Article 50 and start the clock on the exit negotiations, one would have hoped that the strategy had been largely settled, leaving us reasonably certain as to what was involved.

Nearly nine months down the line, though, in what has been one of the most frustrating and unrewarding periods in contemporary political history, we still lack clarity on our Government's intentions.

Worse still, there are growing fears that the absence of clarity from Mrs May and her ministers do not reflect a desire to protect the UK's negotiating position. Rather, it is indicative of the confusion and ignorance at the heart of Government over what they are seeking and what is possible to achieve.

Thus we get from the Irish Times a weak polemic from a Mrs May who claims to be "confident" of agreeing a satisfactory trade agreement with the EU despite, as the paper says, "a growing chorus of Conservatives warning that the forthcoming negotiations are likely to end with no deal at all".

What particularly gripped me about this piece was the comment from Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin, warning that the Irish Government needed to make contingency plans for a disorderly Brexit that could see Britain crashing out of the EU without any deal.

"One gets the sense", he said, "that the Brexiteers within the British political establishment are very anxious to find someone to blame if this all goes south and that therefore there may be a motivation among some Brexiteers to have discussions break up earlier so they can blame it on an unreasonable EU".

He then adds a sentiment which seems all too real, saying: "There's a risk that this chaotic break-up could occur through no fault of our own and due to the fact that there are forces in Britain who are pushing and pushing for a quick Brexit and a hard Brexit".

We then get former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern intervening, declaring that the border issue thrown up by Brexit is a "nightmare" for Ireland. But this is another of those politicians who hasn't got a grip, telling us that about 45 percent of the Irish food industry output goes to the UK, which "will take a big hit if there is tariffs and that along with the currency problems, that makes it difficult". Nine months into the game, and that is all he has to offer.

The current Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, has been in Brussels with the other Heads of States and Government (HSG), attending an informal European Council meeting in the technicolour "egg", the first ever in the new building. And, in common with the rest of the world, he was expressing impatience with the British government over the lack of clarity on its future relationship with the European Union.

Speaking at the end of what the legacy media insist on calling a "summit", the Great Man was said to be displaying "irritation" that London was still vague about what exactly its relationship will be with the EU, in particular its attitude to membership or otherwise of the EU customs union.

This again tells you the Irish politicians are not up to much – alongside our domestic breed. When, if ever, will these people realise that the customs union is embedded in the EU treaties. Leaving the EU requires, of necessity, that we leave the customs union. The only way to stay in is to abandon Article 50 and stay in the EU.

Staying in the Single Market is, of course, a different kettle of fish. Through the Efta/EEA option, we continue to participate yet detach ourselves from the EU and remove ourselves from the jurisdiction of the ECJ.

Chris Johns, of the Irish Times, however, has bigger fish to fry. He suggests that the best way for Ireland to deal with Brexit is "to finally admit the inescapable logic of Irish reunification".

A reconstituted border, he says, makes about as much sense as the Republic leaving the EU. The way to avoid this most awful of dilemmas is to explain to Northern Unionists that their economic future looks far rosier in the EU rather than outside and the only way to achieve that is to accept Irish reunification.

That idea of Brexit leading towards re-unification, says my Irish friend, is indeed being put about. It is always underpinned with the presumption that Ireland's prosperity is the result of its membership of the EU and that leaving the EU is of course not even to be contemplated, so we won't even introduce those possibilities into the argument.

But both presumptions are flawed, so of course the arguments that follow are flawed. The EU-enthusiasts who think the North would be better off with an EU-member Ireland never mention, by the way, that that would mean the North joining the euro; or that the new United Ireland would be a net contributor to an EU which has just taken a budget hit from the UK leaving.

What the border-concerned also ignore is the point that Ireland's trade with Great Britain is more important than Ireland's trade with that fraction of the UK north of the border. If Ireland would suffer with the North no longer in the Single Market, why would not our, suffering be of even more epic proportions when GB, our most important trading partner, is no longer in the Single Market?

As for re-unification, my friend sometimes think it may be a case of "more tears are shed over answered prayers than over unanswered ones". As to my views on re-unification, the response I got from my friend was: "I have to admit that in all my life in Dublin, I have never once looked out over the city and thought: 'What this place needs is shed-loads more Presbyterians'". I smiled.

Meanwhile, far, far away, where it rains mainly on the plain, politicians are also stirring. Here, they are saying – according to a leaked report - that a hard Brexit could cost the Spanish economy €1bn (£870m) in lost exports and have "innumerable repercussions" for the 800,000 Britons who live in Spain and the 300,000 Spaniards in the UK.

Surprisingly, while the report does not set out Spanish government policy, it implies that, "Madrid wants a soft Brexit and not a punitive approach that makes London suffer".

Watching Spanish MEPs at work in the European Parliament pêch committee, one begun to understand the driving force behind the Spanish Inquisition. It was the only time working in that institution that I ever experienced a sense of menace.

With Gibraltar and fishing and now zillions of money at stake, the Spanish potentially represent a serious threat. If they are calling for calm in the run-up to the negotiations – as Spain's prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, was said to be doing at the European Council - then we have friends in unexpected places.

Alongside that, we find that the first Spanish state visit to the UK in more than three decades has been announced. By complete coincidence (how could it be anything other?), King Felipe and Queen Letizia are to visit Britain between 6 and 8 June at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth.

Predictably, both countries have been "quick to seize on the visit as an opportunity to underline the closeness and importance of British-Spanish relations at a time of uncertainty". In a statement, the Spanish foreign ministry said: "This state visit will serve to reflect, at the highest possible level, the strength and excellence of the bilateral links between Spain and the UK – and our commitment to maintaining them for the benefit of citizens of both countries".

One wonders if even the Spanish actually believe this but, for the moment, jaw-jaw is better than war-war. It may yet come to sinking Spanish warships in the waters off Gibraltar, but not just yet.

At least one thing has been settled, though. Despite being disowned by his own country, Donald Tusk has been re-elected President of the European Council for the period from 1 June 2017 until 30 November 2019. We now know who, notionally, will respond to Mrs May and her Article 50 letter.

It also appears that the newly-elected Mr Tusk is ready to respond within two days of receiving the letter. The HSG will be asked to agree unanimously on the guidelines for the negotiation which will finally allow the European Commission to make proposals for the negotiating mandate, allowing Mr Barnier (if he is confirmed as chief negotiator) finally to do an honest day's work.

"We won't be surprised by the letter on any given day", says the uncrowned Queen of Europe, Angela Merkel. "We're fully prepared and will wait with interest". As to what will be in it, that's anybody's guess.

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