Brexit: In a high-stakes game, nobody wants to take the blame for a no-deal crash

Ireland will be nervous of short extension of UK exit date and will argue for longer period

 Leo Varadkar speaks to the press after a meeting with the French president on April 2nd. Photograph:  Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty

Leo Varadkar speaks to the press after a meeting with the French president on April 2nd. Photograph: Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty

 

The Government’s strategy ahead of a crucial Brexit week is based on two pillars – strong support for an extension to the UK’s exit date and a damage-limitation strategy in case a crash-out exit does happen. It is a high-stakes game in an environment that remains very uncertain.

In an interview on Saturday with RTÉ’s Countrywide, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expressed confidence that the UK would get an extension in its Article 50 exit date. However he anticipated the likely debate among EU leaders, when saying that the length of the extension and the conditions attached for it will have to be discussed.

There has ben a lot of speculation about the circumstances under which an extension would be granted, and – crucially – the length of it. Experience from the last summit suggests that the outcome can be different to what people expect, or officials have suggested, once leaders get around the table.

The EU leaders are seen as unlikely to concede to Theresa May’s request for an extension until the end of June – having already turned this proposal down at the last summit. But is is also unclear whether they would approve the proposal from European Council president of a so-called flextension, with the UK given an extension of a year, but able to leave earlier if it passes the withdrawal agreement. For both sides this opens up the unwelcome prospect of the UK electing MEPs to the new parliament.

With uncertainty about what the UK will offer at the summit and serious reservations in some EU member states about the UK remaining a member for a prolonged period, the outcome remains uncertain. Ireland will argue for a long extension to Article 50, wanting to avoid another cliff-edge threat in the weeks ahead from another short extension date. If, for example, the EU leaders accepted Theresa May’s date of June 30th, or went for some date in May before the European Parliament elections for an extension, this would up the risk of a no-deal exit happening.

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Theresa May over the weekend presented the choice as leaving the EU with a deal, or not leaving at all. But while she is pointing out that the House of Commons has ruled out a no-deal exit – and this is important – this still remains possible unless she can agree a deal with the EU and the House of Commons finally passed the withdrawal agreement. Hence her talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to try to agree a joint approach. Of course the UK does have another way out – revoking Article 50, which it could do unilaterally. Would it do this in th face of an imminent no-deal threat?

Dublin will have picked up the reservations in some EU states to allowing the endless Brexit drama to continue. And so the Taoiseach upped the temperature on Saturday, saying that any state who vetoed an extension “wouldn’t be forgiven for it.” It does look unlikely that the EU leaders would refuse any extension, leading to a crash-out exit next Friday, April 12th. But the Government will be aware that this risk has not been removed and also of the danger of a short extension, particularly if this was framed in part as allowing all sides more time to plan for a crash-out. Some EU leaders will fear a long extension would take the pressure off the House of Commons and this will be a factor in the talks.

If a no-deal Brexit does happen, this week or more likely later, then the Government is also trying to lay down some markers. On Saturday, the Taoiseach said that it would make more sense to have customs and regulatory checks on goods undertaken at Larne and Belfast ports, rather than at the Irish Border.

There are two questions here. One is whether the UK would agree to this – given that this would effectively be a version of the backstop which was so controversial during the talks. And it would require the North to stay in regulatory and customs alignment with the EU, while the UK potentially diverges, the reason why the DUP has so virulently opposed to the backstop plan.

The EU side would also have to sign up to any plan for checks to be conducted in this fashion. EU regulations say goods must clear customs to enter its territory and also that all necessary regulatory checks are conducted. Crucially, this includes checks on animals and food products conducted at Border Inspection Posts at the entry point to the single market.

It is not clear how the Irish Border drama would play out in the event of a no-deal and this is the subject of ongoing discussions between the Government and the European Commission. But there is simply no easy way to balance the goals of avoiding border checks while also protecting the single market.

Avoiding a no-deal exit is the only way to protect the free Irish Border and the Single Market. This will be a key factor in the discussions at the EU summit on Wednesday. And may well influence the outcome. Nobody wants to take the blame for a no-deal Brexit.

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