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Ireland cannot afford Leo Varadkar’s foolish missteps on Brexit

Stephen Collins: Government must maintain a cool head to counter Britain’s delusion

The Government faces the ultimate test of nerve in the coming weeks as the United Kingdom stumbles along the cliff edge of a no-deal Brexit. Cool heads and a rational assessment of the available options will be required at every step along the way as the March 29th deadline approaches.

There is no room for further missteps, like the foolish speculation about the Army being required to guard a hard Border uttered by Leo Varadkar at Davos, or for knee-jerk nationalist reactions to provocative statements from right-wing Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party.

The behaviour of MPs in the two main British parties in the House of Commons this week provided proof, if proof were needed, of the necessity for some kind of Border backstop. Trusting the British parliament to honour its obligations to Ireland without a legal imperative to do so is simply not an option.

One of the biggest misapprehensions about the Border backstop is that it is an Irish device which has the reluctant backing of the European Union institutions and the other 26 member states. In fact the backstop was a key element in the EU negotiating strategy designed to force the British to face up to the full implications of a hard Brexit for future trade arrangements as well as concern for the Belfast Agreement.

The notion that the EU would simply abandon the backstop and Irish concerns once the talks entered their final phase has been a fundamental misreading of the position by many in British politics and almost all of the British media.

It has never been a case of the Irish tail wagging the EU dog but of the EU holding firm in the face of a serious threat to its own survival. The damage that will inevitably result from a no-deal Brexit pales into insignificant when compared to the prospect of the EU breaking up. That also applies to Ireland even though we will suffer more from a no deal than any of the other remaining EU states.

Failing strategy

The delusion in British politics is that the EU as a whole has as much to lose from a no-deal Brexit as the UK. This fundamental misreading of the position has influenced British thinking despite all the evidence to the contrary and will probably persist even when Theresa May is rebuffed by the EU once more.

What her game plan is, or even if she has one, is anybody’s guess at this stage. She received fair warning from the EU that there was no prospect of the withdrawal agreement being reopened – but for internal Conservative Party politics she backed a strategy that will inevitably fail.

The Government is likely to suffer damaging political fallout from a no-deal Brexit

One reading is that she knows full well what will happen and simply wants to bring the reality of it home to all side in the Commons with the ultimate ambition of coming back to parliament at the 11th hour with a final choice of her deal or no deal. Given the volatility of British politics that looks like a dangerous gamble. Its success would require a fundamental reassessment of the options by Labour Party MPs with a significant number of them being prepared to vote for May’s deal in order to avoid a no-deal.

There is not much the Government in Dublin can do for the moment. There were signs that it was prepared to modify its position if the UK moved towards a softer Brexit but given that the opposite has happened there is no incentive, at least for the moment, to look at other options.

In terms of domestic politics, Varadkar and his government are safe in the short term. The pressure from the Opposition is to hold firm to the backstop and not to compromise. With the EU united in resisting the British demand for a reopening of the withdrawal agreement, there is no outside pressure either.

Domestic politics

That might change if the British, instead of demanding changes to the withdrawal agreement, looked for wording in the political declaration about future trading arrangements that gave more clarity about the temporary nature of the backstop.

That would pose a real political challenge for Varadkar who would have to weigh up the domestic political damage he might suffer as a result of compromising as against the importance of avoiding a no-deal Brexit. For the moment, though, that dilemma has not presented itself and won’t unless there is a big change in the British approach.

In the longer term, the Government is likely to suffer damaging political fallout from a no-deal as the full economic consequences make themselves felt. Fianna Fáil is already beginning to be critical of the lack of preparation and this will become a full-blown assault if the worst actually happens.

There are good reasons why the Government tried to play down the prospects of a hard border for so long. There was a fear that preparing for it would encourage a general acceptance of the very thing it wants to avoid. Preparations for a no-deal are now being made as a matter of urgency but neither the Government, nor anybody else, can be sure how events will unfold over the next two months.