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Noel Whelan: Collapse of Brexit talks now the better of two evils

Derailment may provoke change in UK politics needed to bring realism to talks

Given the contorted state of British cabinet politics and the delusions which persist among many British commentators and voters about Brexit, a collapse in talks now rather than in October would be the lesser of two evils. Photograph: Bryan O’Brien

It is more than three decades since Ireland’s politicians and public servants have had to embark on an exercise in politics, diplomacy and constitution framing as complex and as important as the current Brexit negotiations. The implications for Ireland must weigh heavily on the minds and shoulders of all involved.

The nightmare outcome of course is that Britain crashes out of the European Union next March without any transition period and without any agreement in place for trade between Britain and the EU.

It is understandable that there is real Irish concern therefore at the prospect of a collapse in the talks between Britain and the EU before European leaders meet for a summit on June 16th.

In these situations it is counterintuitive for diplomats and most politicians to insist on the sort of clarity which risks breakdown. The instinct is usually to keep the talks going, to keep engaging, to blur the lines of disagreement, to hope that sense will prevail in the end.


Of course, it will put Ireland in an uncomfortable position if our government has to precipitate this collapse because the British government refuses to confirm the “backstop” agreed about the Irish Border in legal text. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has indicated that he is prepared to so if necessary.

Diplomatic fudge

Given the contorted state of British cabinet politics and the delusions which persist among many British commentators and voters about what can be achieved in Brexit, a collapse in the talks now rather than in October would be the lesser of two evils. It is to be preferred over engaging in more diplomatic fudge which merely postpones that breakdown to October.

At least if things came to a head now there could be sufficient time for the cathartic event necessary in British politics to occur so as to enable a real effort to resolve the Irish Border and other matters in the autumn.

Fudging around the real obstacles across the summer will only enable Brexiters to persist in the fantasy that Britain can be great again as a free-trading nation while continuing to trade into the EU on terms close to the existing arrangements. It would also serve to disabuse Brexiteers of the comforting notion that the Irish Government is exaggerating its concerns about the Border or that Michel Barnier is merely exploiting the Irish Border issue to inflict a higher cost on Britain for leaving.

The cathartic event necessary in British politics could take the form of a cabinet crisis combined with parliamentary shifts which enable prime minister Theresa May to concede to continued membership of the customs union and some regulatory alignment. In the absence of that, it may take a British general election. It might even require the Labour Party government negotiating a soft Brexit after having adjusted its position towards continued customs union and single market membership before or just after any such election .

Recent manoeuvres in both houses at Westminster have managed to set some parliamentary traps in the way of a hard Brexit policy. Events there might have been expected to come to a head later this year but a collapse in the talks in June might bring that timescale forward also.

Political consensus

Bringing matters to a head in June would also have the advantage of preserving the political consensus here in Ireland about Brexit policy. This is something which should not to be taken for granted. Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, and most of the smaller parties and Independents have been remarkably supportive of the Government position until relatively recently. Some differences have emerged since Britain’s refusal to legally codify the agreement on the Border was parked in March. Fianna Fáil in particular has been critical of a perceived government failure to nail down the backstop option. Any further delay or fudge on doing so at the June summit creates space for division in the Oireachtas on the point. Such divisions would no doubt be exploited by Brexiteers who love to point out how precarious the Varadkar government is.

Bringing matters to a head in June would also put beyond doubt the commitment of our European partners in supporting the Irish position. To date the strategy of being deeply embedded within the EU27 negotiation stance has worked. There endures, however, a lingering doubt that, when it comes to the crunch, our European partners will abandon our concerns in order to get a workable deal with Britain. The fear is that if matters are left for resolution at the end of October then – in a scenario not unknown in large-scale European negotiation – we as a smaller state would come under irresistible pressure during last-minute talks to concede on the nature of the Irish Border so that Brexit terms could be finalised.

It would be better we know where we stand, and who stands with us in June, rather than scrambling to achieve our objectives when up against the wire in October.