John Downing: ‘Our continued Brexit problem is that three into two will not go’
The Brexit problem we all face can be boiled down to three possible outcomes sought by the key actors in this international drama. The challenge is to get beyond the realpolitik that only two of these three outcomes appears possible right now.
We are facing a chaotic pair of months with our economic futures hanging in the balance. Suddenly the heroic Brexit gloss on Leo Varadkar does not look so lustrous.
But the problems are not of this Government’s making and there is only so much Ireland can do to influence the final result. The dilemma poses an interesting challenge for Mr Varadkar and colleagues in managing public expectations over the coming weeks and months.
The Brexit problem was and remains a clash of three distinct desired outcomes being sought by the key actors engaged in this gut political struggle. Outcomes one and two, involving the UK and EU, are diametrically opposed. This clash has always made outcome number three – Ireland’s hopes and fears – look rather shaky.
First off, desired outcome number one. The British government wants to leave – “Brexit means Brexit”, the then-newly installed Prime Minister Theresa May proclaimed in October 2016. We are still unsure what that means, bar an intent to leave both the EU customs union and single market, a declaration which has set the bar dangerously high from an Irish standpoint.
So, to desired outcome two. The EU wants a reasonable ongoing relationship with the UK after Brexit. A satisfactory exit includes collecting a residual €40bn bill for commitments already signed up to. But above all the EU is committed to protecting the integrity of the internal border-free EU single market and customs union which would cover 440 million people post-Brexit.
That raises the reality of an EU-UK border – and that involves Ireland, the location of the only post-Brexit EU-UK de facto land frontier.
Last, but never least from our standpoint, we come to the Irish desired outcome. Politically we badly need to avoid any return of a visible Border on this island which risks a return to violence. But we also need to retain hugely lucrative trade between the two islands.
Brutally assessed, one of these three options must fall. In all fairness to the EU and UK negotiators there was a realistic effort at compromise in the November 25 draft EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement which finds a way of avoiding a hard Border in Ireland. We have since learned the stark reality that Mrs May cannot get the necessary parliamentary ratification for that deal. And since Tuesday we have also had the confirmation of the EU’s fall-back story that this means Ireland’s hopes are not going to be realised, unless Britain can sell the escape hatch compromise.
Suddenly, Leo Varadkar’s and his ministers’ fickle EU-Brexit hero status looks rather fragile. He needs a better and more frank way of explaining his case.