by Frank Schnittger
Tue Aug 8th, 2017 at 07:09:39 PM EST
Fintan O'Toole's "Brexiteers' foolishness gives Ireland control" has neatly summarised what I have been saying over a number of posts in the last few months:
Yes, those really are vague pink glimmers in the early morning sky. Reality is dawning on the Brexiteers. Once, they were going to walk away from the European Union in March 2019, whistling Rule Britannia and greeting queues of foreign supplicants begging for trade deals. Now, they are hoping to cling on until June 2022. They know they are going over a cliff and realise that it is better to climb down slowly than to plunge off the top.
But this climbdown also creates a crucial weakness - one that explains why the Irish Government's tone has changed so radically.
To understand this new weakness, we have to recall that there were two possible scenarios in which the Irish Government had very little power. One was that the UK would simply walk away from the EU without any deal, the car-crash Brexit for which British prime minister Theresa May's old mantra, "No deal is better than a bad deal", was meant to be the overture. If that happened, Ireland was completely impotent.
The other possible scenario was the straightforward one set out in article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. The UK and the EU would negotiate a full exit deal by March 2019. In this case, Ireland would have very little power either. Even if the deal was a betrayal of our interests, we could not veto it.
The deal would have to be ratified by the European Parliament and then by the European Council. But, crucially, the council has to accept the deal only by a qualified majority. In both bodies, therefore, Ireland could easily be out-voted.
However once the UK started talking about seeking an extension of the two year A50 period, the initiative has swung dramatically towards Ireland. What the UK Brexit debate seems to overlook entirely is that any such extension can only be granted by unanimous agreement of the European Council. Ireland now has a veto if it doesn't like the way the negotiations are shaping up.
Wolfgang Munchau even has an article advocating that the UK should leave and re-join the EU by invoking A49 if it wants to reboot its relationship with the EU. Extraordinarily he never once mentions that all EU27 would have to agree to any A49 application to rejoin.
For a country so critical of the EU and all it's works, the UK seems to have extraordinary faith in the goodwill of the EU27 to unanimously grant their every wish, no matter how complex or convoluted their political manoeuvres. This is the stuff of cloud cuckoo land. The EU27 will look to their own interests first, and for Ireland the avoidance of a hard land border with N. Ireland is an existential issue: We do not wish to revisit the Troubles all over again.
Having campaigned for Brexit and lost in N. Ireland, the DUP is intent on foisting its vision of Brexit on the island against the wishes of the vast majority of the people of Ireland both North and south. It is now coming over all indignant that the Irish Government is not warming to the task of helping it in its endeavours. Accusing the Irish government of failing to "respect" the UK Brexit vote and help in its implementation, they forget that the role of the Irish government is to respect and represent the wishes of the Irish people. Indeed if new technology can make the border as "frictionless" as the DUP contend, what is to prevent its implementation at N. Ireland air and sea ports?
For some reason Brexiteers still seem to think that Ireland will repent of it's apostasy and join the Brexit crusade:
The rush towards Brexit has sent its supporters into the sort of emotional fervour you expect to encounter at a Christian revivalist meeting. It's not an economic argument. It's possession. Patriotism is like that. They're shaking with the spirit of Jesus and speaking in tongues. Listen to some of the things they are saying. Just last week the younger Ian Paisley suggested that "Ireland will wise up and leave the EU". Elsewhere, Daniel Hannan MEP, among the most fervent preachers for the Church of Brexit, was going further and implying that Ireland might re-enter the United Kingdom. "It would surely be logistically easier to treat the British Isles as what it has always been - a single customs area," he bellowed from his Twitter pulpit. Testify! Testify!
Little matter that 88% of Irish voters want to remain in the EU including no less than 99% of students. Despite the undoubted difficulties that Brexit will create, the latest Eurobaromenter poll shows that the Irish are more optimistic about the future of the EU than the people of any other member state.
Part of the reason that sentiment is shared by both right and left, nationalist and socialist voters is because the EU has been instrumental in enabling an economic and social revolution in Ireland. But an important reason is also that it has reduced the importance of the North south land border to the point that many are barely aware of it. The Good Friday agreement would not have been possible were it not for the overarching good offices of the EU, together with its commitment to "an ever closer union".
Brexit has put that border back onto the agenda again, centre stage, and there is no way to reconcile the Irish Governmental insistence that there be no physical land border controls with the Unionist insistence that there be no controls at air and sea ports between N. Ireland and Britain. Perhaps some fudged "Double doors" solution will ultimately be agreed, but I can't see either the EU or the UK being very happy if N. Ireland becomes some kind of back-channel for goods avoiding tariffs or travellers avoiding immigration controls.
The bottom line is that if the UK wants an extension of the A50 period, it will have to come up with a proposal that satisfies the minimum requirements of the Irish government. Increasingly this is looking like some sort of "special or associate status" for N. Ireland where it remains part of the Single Market and Customs Union. If the DUP find any such proposal unacceptable, then the Conservatives will have to decide which it needs more: a Brexit deal or DUP support.
Indeed this may become the "least worst" solution for the DUP, because UK commentators are already talking about Irish re-unification being the only option if a hard Brexit is desired. If the Tory government wants to put the DUP back into its box, they need only mention re-unification as a possible alternative.
With the Irish border issue being one of the three key issues on which "sufficient progress" must be made before the European Council will sanction negotiations on a broader Brexit and post Brexit trade deal, the Conservative government may have to make that call sooner rather than later. The DUP will then face a moment of truth: bring down the Conservative government and risk its sweetheart deal and face the prospect of a Corbyn led UK government, or discover that, miraculously, new technology can make the air and sea port customs and immigration controls as seamless as any land border.
And so, the EU may suddenly gain another "associate status" territory.