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Stephen Collins: Brexiteers may have just made another mistake

Expectation that EU will cave in and give Boris Johnson what he wants remains far-fetched

Boris Johnson and his supporters in the Conservative Party have made two fundamental misjudgments since the Brexit debate began. One is that Ireland will ultimately have no choice but to bow to British interests and the other is that the European Union is on the verge of breaking up.

In fact the trend has been in the exact opposite direction on both fronts. The EU 27 have shown remarkable solidarity with Ireland not simply out of loyalty to a fellow member state but because of an appreciation that this is an existential moment for the European project. Far from signalling the break-up of the EU Brexit has acted as a glue to hold it in place.

From an Irish perspective the Brexit crisis has reinforced the commitment of the population to the EU to such an extent that pro-European sentiment is stronger here than in any other member state. Given the enormous benefits that EU membership has brought to this country this should hardly be a surprise.

The strength and unity of the EU has come as a profound shock to the Brexiteers and it is now the British constitution that is suffering under the strain. The clash between government and parliament is a dangerous moment for British democracy as it deepens the already wide gulf that has opened up not just in politics but right across society. Just for good measure it has also put the future of the United Kingdom into the balance.



The resignation of the charismatic Ruth Davidson as leader of the Scottish Conservatives represents the loss of an important pro-union figure for the next independence referendum which now appears inevitable.

An insight into the thinking of the Brexiteers can be found in the writings of Dublin-born historian Brendan Simms, professor of international relations at Cambridge University. Writing in the New Statesman back in 2017 he pointed out, correctly, that it would be the Europeans who would have to insist on a border in Ireland after Brexit to protect the single market.

He then went on to say: “To submit to such a demand from Brussels would be as politically impossible for the Irish Republic as it would be difficult for it to resist the economic reprisals that may result from failing to do so. Once again – the last time being during the 2008 financial crisis – Dublin is discovering that it risks becoming an object buffeted by broader European forces that it is unable to control.”

The notion that it is only a matter of time before leaders in Brussels and Dublin buckle continues to persist in the UK

That assessment has proved to be entirely wrong. Far from being politically impossible to back the line coming from Brussels it has become politically impossible for Leo Varadkar and his Government to bow to British demands, regardless of the economic consequences.

Another assessment made by Simms in the same article was that “the European humpty-dumpty is hanging on by its fingernails, as Trump, Vladimir Putin and the various pre-existing crises stomp along the wall. If it comes to a confrontation, Britain could push it off – if the EU does not fall or jump of its own accord first.” So far, at least, the European humpty-dumpty has managed to stay on the wall as it watches the British bulldog attempting to bite off more than it can chew.

Despite the fact that such assessments of the Irish and EU positions have not been borne out by events over the past three years the notion that it is only a matter of time before leaders in Brussels and Dublin buckle continues to persist in the UK and have a big influence on official policy. Even now Johnson continues to insist against all the evidence that there is a good chance that leaders attending the next EU summit in Brussels in mid-October will agree to abandon the Border backstop and give him a good deal.

Final effort

It is important to stress that Johnson and his supporters represent just one strand of opinion in the UK and there are many people in politics and outside it who have very different views on Ireland and the EU. Those who represent the open, tolerant face of Britain will make one final effort next week to try to block a no-deal Brexit through parliamentary action.

They are attempting to build a cross-party majority in the House of Commons that can seize control of the parliamentary agenda and pass legislation blocking a no-deal Brexit. They haven’t been very effective in the past and a successful outcome is probably a long shot. In any case Johnson might even respond to a defeat as the excuse for a general election in which he is confident of winning an overall majority.

That might not be the forgone conclusion he assumes. Look at the way Matteo Salvini collapsed the Italian government in the confident belief he would romp home in an election only to see former allies and opponents joining forces in the Italian parliament to thwart him by forming a new coalition.

Salvini is probably the biggest internal political threat to the EU and his political miscalculation is good news in Brussels. It is just another reason why the notion that the EU is going to cave in at the last minute and give Johnson what he wants is so far-fetched.