Chances of no-deal Brexit retreating despite febrile Westminster
Border question has been hiding in plain sight for some time
British prime minister Theresa May announced on Wednesday that she would not remain in her post for the next phase of Brexit negotiations. Photograph: Jack Taylor/Getty Images
The mood in Brussels darkened considerably at last week’s summit, but events at Westminster this week have prompted optimism in Dublin. Nobody is saying it in public but some people in government now feel that they may be on the verge of deliverance from their worst nightmare – and achieve a significant political victory to boot.
The mood among European Union leaders last week was grim and by early this week the European Commission was warning that a no-deal Brexit was becoming increasingly likely.
This in turn put pressure on the Irish Government because the commission is becoming increasingly anxious that there should be some sort of contingency plan for the Border. That anxiety, bordering in some respects on impatience, has spilled out into public view a few times recently, not least at last week’s summit when German chancellor Angela Merkel asked about it – and then, equally as significantly, EU officials briefed that she had.
In truth, the border question has been hiding in plain sight for some time. As experts have repeatedly pointed out, a crash-out Brexit would require some sort of border regime, no matter where it was and no matter what the nature of it was.
Ireland has always said it would not have a hard border but it would protect the single market and the customs union. Problem is, as the Taoiseach acknowledged in the Dáil on Tuesday, this presents a “dilemma” – as these two priorities would be in conflict.
On Wednesday EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs: “There will be no hard border.” But then he also said: “Because of course we have to respect the single market, but also out of respect for the British internal market, there are going to have to be checks carried out somewhere.”
He added, somewhat ominously: “The commission is ready to make additional resources available to Ireland, technical and financial, to address any additional challenges.”
Of all the many, many downsides to Brexit for Ireland, the re-emergence of some sort of border controls was the biggest. It was also the one of which the Government was most afraid.
So as the pessimism grows in Brussels, you would think that Leo Varadkar’s Government would become more and more windy.
But that is not quite what is happening. Even as Brussels turns up the volume about the likelihood of no deal, events in Westminster – observed, interpreted and comprehended more closely and more acutely by Irish officials and media than their EU counterparts – push the prospect of a no-deal outcome in the coming weeks further away.
Bluntly put, the chances of no deal are retreating, and that makes people in the Government very happy. For Fine Gael, it raises the prospects of a very significant political victory.
That analysis is not contradicted by British prime minister Theresa May’s announcement on Wednesday that she would not remain in her post for the next phase of Brexit negotiations.
Senior people in Government are almost completely allergic to expressing their confidence out loud. They certainly do not broadcast it widely, even within the closed circles of Varadkar’s administration.
They know that given the febrile nature of politics at Westminster, another lurch towards a hard Brexit is not impossible. Several senior officials still warn about the dangers of an “accidental no deal”.
But the power of the numbers in the House of Commons – and at certain points, politics is all about the numbers – make it unlikely.
One senior figure agrees that the likely range of outcomes now runs from the withdrawal agreement – with backstop intact – being passed, to the UK seeking a much softer Brexit which sees it remain in the single market and the customs union. Anything like this would present a pretty good outcome for the Government.
Is there a likelihood of a major political victory for the Government? “Yes,” says one senior source. “But you won’t catch anyone in Government saying that.”