Saturday February 22, 2020

With the clock ticking on Brexit, our only option is to delay catastrophe

If we can’t drop the backstop, our best bet is to kick the problem five years down the road

25th August, 2019

Another week has passed, yet we are no closer to averting the calamity of a no-deal Brexit.

Last week, meetings took place between British prime minister Boris Johnson and the most powerful EU leaders, Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel. Yet those meetings, and the news that Johnson will visit Dublin imminently, provided little hope that Britain and the European Union are moving any closer to an agreement, or even a path towards agreement.

In fact, the rhetoric of complete intransigence coming from London and EU capitals, including Dublin, can only lead one to the depressing conclusion that an October 31 crash-out is now the only likely outcome.

The tone-deaf attitude in all capitals, where leaders simply reiterate their previously stated positions with increasing degrees of certainty and self-congratulation, can provide no comfort to the people who will pick up the pieces from this political mess.

The Irish government has been consistent in its demand that Britain either honour the agreement to include a so-called backstop in the withdrawal agreement or come up with an alternative.

The problem with this position is that the British parliament has rejected the backstop and there is no viable alternative which can be invented by Britain in the next two months, or indeed in the foreseeable future. So what the EU demands is, in effect, undeliverable. This means a crash-out is all but inevitable.

The backstop is clearly the only legally binding mechanism that can ensure a hard border and all forms of checks and controls between the North and South of Ireland are unnecessary. Britain would effectively remain within both the EU single market and customs union so that no checks are required either to determine their place of origin or compliance with the rules and standards which apply to goods emanating from the EU single market.

Of course, this flies in the face of the logic of Brexit. Brexit was about freeing Britain from the perceived “shackles” of EU membership and allowing it to launch trade negotiations with third countries. Neither objective can be realised with the backstop in place. Thus it was never going to be acceptable to Brexiteers.

This has been as clear as day for the past two years, yet we are still harping on about a solution that is, frankly, unworkable.

At the same time, there are no alternative solutions which can deliver the objectives of the backstop. All technological solutions deployed on borders across the globe fall far short of the sort of conformity and compliance implied by the backstop. All such technological solutions would require human verification and inspection of some sort at some point in the transportation of goods.

The problem is that we are now two months away from Brexit D-Day, with a prime minister in place who is prepared to take his chances and take Britain out of the European Union without a deal.

Boris Johnson is a buffoon, a charlatan and a chancer with few redeeming leadership credentials. We may feel a sense of superiority when he opens his gaffe-prone mouth and we may recoil when he attempts to threaten the EU or demand an unrealistic negotiation. However, none of that changes the fact that the impact of his actions will reverberate around Ireland for many years to come.

Feeling good about our insistence on a theoretical backstop which will not see the light of day is a pretty futile government position, and one which will unleash great harm on our people. Our political leaders have a responsibility to do everything in their power to prevent such harm.

To give credit to the government, a huge amount of Brexit planning has occurred across all departments. Efforts have been afoot since 2016 to ameliorate the devastating impact of a no-deal Brexit.

However, this is damage limitation after the fact. The stable door is open and the horse is about to bolt. Instead of doing all you can to close the door, you wait for the horse to escape and then call the vet to deal with any damage the animal has done to itself when it is too late.

There was a genuine sense of Groundhog Day last week as ministers once again appeared all over the Irish media to insist on the viability of the backstop while incongruously claiming that they were prepared to listen to any alternative proposals Britain might wish to bring forward in the coming weeks. We all know that no such proposals can or will emerge.

At the same time, the government press office issued a pointless press release on Thursday expressing concern at the level of preparedness among a range of sectors across the Irish economy. The list of sectors mentioned covers all major arms of the Irish economy apart from large foreign multinationals.

An honest appraisal would perhaps admit that these sectors, dominated by small and medium sized companies, cannot adequately prepare for the economic catastrophe which is looming. The only way to prevent economic devastation on this island is to avoid a hard Brexit. And the government, rather than SMEs are in a position to do this.

We have just two months to find a compromise with Britain. The only apparent way to achieve this, without conceding the principle of the backstop and no border infrastructure, is to delay the prospect of a no-deal Brexit for as long as possible.

A political compromise could realistically entail a time limit of five years on the backstop, with Ireland and the EU committing to deliver a comprehensive EU-British trade deal in that time-frame which would negate the need for a permanent backstop.

Such an outcome is not without risk. It keeps alive the possibility of Britain ultimately leaving without any guarantees for the border and the North. However, the government would be prudent to postpone such a disastrous outcome for as long as possible.

A lot can happen in five years which might change the complexion of Brexit and British politics entirely. Sadly, the same cannot be said of the coming two months.

Sticking rigidly to our current position could well lead to the outcome the withdrawal agreement was supposed to avert – a border between North and South, a return to political unrest and violence and economic devastation for people across Ireland. We cannot knowingly walk our country into such a situation. It is time for compromise.

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