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Brexit: between rocks and hard places

2017-09-21 07:31:37

We've written extensively about the Irish question and Brexit and can add little more to the overall discussion, other to remind ourselves that the most promising practical option for the border is likely to be politically unacceptable to the DUP.

Confirmation of that came during a visit to Ireland by Guy Verhofstadt, which has had the DUP's MEP Diane Dodds reject the idea of a special arrangement, allowing Northern Ireland to stay in the customs union or single market. While stressing that the DUP wanted a "seamless border", Dodds said: "We will not countenance a solution that makes us different from other parts of the United Kingdom".

There is a work-around to this, though. An arrangements can be made which can make the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland disappear, without having to give it a specific label. Any agreement can then be formalised and given treaty status as bilateral agreement between the UK and the EU.

But the re-emergence of this issue on the eve of Mrs May's Florence speech underlines the fact that the Irish question is one of the sticking points in part one of the Brexit negotiations. Although much of the media would like to focus solely on the money (as, no doubt, would the politicians), a solution here must be part of the package before the EU will allow the talks to move on to discuss trade and related issues.

Generally speaking, neither the media nor the politicians like talking about Ireland. They regard it as an irritant and a distraction, preferring to discuss more weighty issues closer to home like what the Foreign Secretary had for breakfast, or some such. Thus, on this side of the Irish Sea, we do not see any serious attempt to explore solution with most of the momentum (predictably) coming from Dublin.

When we add to that an almost pathological determination of the "Ultra" commentariat, - including MPs such as Owen Paterson and John Redwood, buoyed by the idiot Andrew Lilico to discount the effects of leaving the Single Market, we find Mrs May in a position where there is no pressure on her to reverse previous policy statements and rethink her position on continued membership of the EEA.

Nothing of recent events, in fact, indicates that Mrs May has any intention of reconsidering that position. As far as we are aware, it is still her intention to give notice to quit the EEA. She seems content to follow the path of a Canadian-style deal, despite multiple and long-standing warnings that there is insufficient time to negotiate a comprehensive deal.

The Canada deal is the favoured option of the "Ultras", but none of them seem to realise that even the most comprehensive of trade deals is but a pale shadow of the EEA Agreement. They exhibit an almost Pollyanna demeanour, brushing away warnings of complications with breathless assurances that things will be alright on the night - with no substance at all to their claims. 

But then the "Ultras" are also entirely comfortable with the prospect of a "no deal" walk-away option. That latter idea may have sufficient traction for it to be attractive to Mrs May, especially as she is being assured that it will so shock the EU that it will cave in under the pressure and give her all she wants albeit at the last minute.

Yet, as we had cause to remind people, yet again, the consequences of leaving just the Single Market are so troublesome that it is difficult to see how we can deal with them.

And, right on cue, the Guardian has weighed in with a piece about the potential consequences of Brexit on commercial aviation. Semi-literate at best (relying on a US source never leads to coherence on EU issues), it nevertheless highlights the perils to which the industry is exposed.

As before, though, there is not a single newspaper nor other media organ that has been able to convey the damage to the economy that would be caused by an ill-considered exit from the EU. And no one in the London establishment, not politicians, academics, think tanks or anyone else, has even got close to describing the chaos that will result from the "no deal" scenario.

If Mrs May had any real understanding of precisely what was at risk, she would taking the greatest care to avoid it but everything we see seems to point to her taking an almost reckless approach to the negotiations.

To an extent, this is borne out by latest speculation, which seems to confirm that the Prime Minister is determined to sideline the Commission negotiators and appeal directly to Member States leaders. This emerged after comments made in New York, when Mrs May stated while in the UN general assembly that: "What I'll be doing on Friday is setting out where we are and looking ahead at negotiations".

She added: " The negotiations are structured within the EU so, of course, the Council has delegated with a mandate to the Commission, and the Commission has appointed Michel Barnier. But the decision will always be one that will be taken by the leaders".

This, incidentally, was after Mrs May had met Dutch premier Mark Rutte, Italy's Paulo Gentoloni and France's Emmanuel Macron in the margins of the UN General Assembly. We have no information on what was discussed, and nor even whether Brexit was even raised.

If Mrs May is truly planning to break away from the Brussels talks, that will leave us in an irrecoverable position. It comes to something when getting us into such a position seems to be a sought-after objective. While we should be seeing the Prime Minister focusing on the issues that will mitigate the effects of Brexit, we are instead seeing a succession of steps that will ensure that negotiations cannot progress in any meaningful way.

As it is, the UK is akin to a worker who has just received a lethal dose of radiation. With no immediate symptoms and no outward signs of the event, for a short period he can pretend nothing has happened. Tragically, though, he is already dead. It is just a matter of time.

On that basis, even the best we can expect from Florence isn't very much. So many mistakes have been made, and so many wrong turns, that it would need all the skills of a remarkable statesman just to salvage anything from the wreckage of the UK's Brexit policy. Mrs May, however, is not even a statesman. She clearly has no grasp of the bigger picture and, if she slams the door on the EEA, the game truly will be over. The disaster capitalists will have their way.

As far as I see it, therefore, Florence can be little more than an exercise in blame avoidance the greater part of which is transferring the blame to the EU for the eventual failure of the talks. One expects her to set up a series of scenarios which make her look reasonable, and unbalance the EU.

The EU, on the other hand, can neutralise this ploy at least partially by reacting quickly to reject any ultimatum that Mrs May might give. Perhaps it might even issue one of its own, pointing out, yet again, that until the Phase One issues are addressed, there can be no progress.

A swift EU response (even a tweet by Barnier) would open the way for the Labour conference to charge that the talks are set for failure. That would put Mrs May on the defensive in front of her own faithful, still lacking a strategy for breaking the deadlock. If she goes so far as to offer 20 billion and still fails, she could be in serious trouble with her own party.

From there, we can't describe Mrs May as between a rock and a hard place. We have to use plurals. There are so many constraints on her actions that she seems to have no room whatsoever for manoeuvre. But then, she is author of her own misfortune. The great pity is that we are forced to share it with her.