Like the scouts, be prepared for the worst Brexit outcome

Time is running out, and no deal on a Withdrawal Treaty by October will make a March hard Brexit very likely

A no-deal for the rest of the EU means no British exit cash and budgetary chaos, border controls and customs, airlines unable to land, uncertainty on citizen rights, and supply line disruptions

A no-deal for the rest of the EU means no British exit cash and budgetary chaos, border controls and customs, airlines unable to land, uncertainty on citizen rights, and supply line disruptions

 

“The European Council renews its call upon Member States, Union institutions and all stakeholders to step up their work on preparedness at all levels and for all outcomes.” – from EU summit Brexit conclusions

The Dutch have already hired 1,000 new customs officers. The commission has a task force – another task force – quietly beavering away under secretary general Martin Selmayr on Brexit worst-case planning. And in Dublin every government department has been tasked with working quietly on no-deal scenarios.

Everyone says they hope and think it won’t be necessary, that a deal will be struck. But, like the scouts, be prepared. Time is running out, and no agreement on a Withdrawal Treaty by October will make a March hard Brexit very likely, with not even a transition to absorb the shock for the rest of the EU.

But prepare for what?

A no-deal for the rest of the EU means no British exit cash and budgetary chaos, border controls and customs, airlines unable to land, uncertainty on citizen rights, and supply line disruptions.

Commitments made in the talks are all conditional on a final deal. And “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.

And yet in Dublin does it also mean preparing Border controls, customs, et cetera?

That’s not nearly as clear because of the special nature of the British commitments. Specifically, diplomats acknowledge that it is their understanding that obligations arising from a shared commitment to preserving the Belfast Agreement are not seen as conditional on a Brexit deal in the way that other Brexit commitments are.

Responding to a question in Luxembourg the other day about such conditionality, a cautious Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney said: “As far as I’m concerned the commitments the British prime minister has made in terms of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, ensuring there would be no Border infrastructure post-Brexit, and even the language in her recent speech where she says she rules out any physical Border infrastructure or related controls on the island of Ireland.

“These are comments I think that are relevant whether or not there’s a Withdrawal Treaty text agreed.”

Commitments

Irish diplomatic sources have been more specific in identifying the commitments to preserve the Common Travel Area and the frictionless Border as being in their view unconditional.

British diplomatic sources suggest that the British government’s “unwavering” commitment to the Belfast Agreement meant that it would certainly want to preserve any obligations arising from that. But the specific “operationalisation” of the Belfast Agreement in the December joint accord between the EU and UK – ie. the backstop in whatever form – would not necessarily be the model for a no-deal situation.

Neither London nor Dublin have talked to each other about what they each see as their obligations and commitments in a no-deal scenario. And clearly the mutual understanding of such obligations is at best vague. Such discussions would not assist the mood music of the main talks which remain the main priority, one diplomat suggested.

But how does one plan for a worse-case scenario without knowing how high the bar will be set?