Stephen Collins: We need to realise Tories will do Brexit the hard way
Conservative Party conference justified ‘the stupid party’ tag coined in Victorian times
British prime minister Theresa May (left) at the European Summit in Brussels: she believes the 27 remaining EU states have as much to lose as the UK from its exit. Photograph: Olivier Hoslet/EPA
The time has come for Irish policy makers to stop dreaming of a soft Brexit and prepare for the reality that the United Kingdom is likely to crash out of the European Union in the ugliest possible fashion.
The biggest threat to Ireland’s national interest at this stage is not that the UK is going to leave the EU but a perception across Europe that this country is too closely allied to the British.
Since the Brexit referendum decision in June there has been a natural desire on the part of the Irish Government to try and help the UK make the smoothest possible exit but it is time to face the reality that this is not going to happen.
Theresa May and her main negotiators have made it abundantly clear they have no interest in doing the kind of deal with the EU that would minimise the fallout on both sides.
If anything, they are committed to making things as bad as they can possibly be in the arrogant belief that the 27 remaining EU states have as much to lose as they have from a UK exit from the single market and the EU customs union.
The fact that they don’t appear to have any coherent plan is only making things worse. The recent Conservative Party conference amply justified “the stupid party” tag which first surfaced in Victorian times.
That leaves the Irish Government with a cruel dilemma. If the British government is intent on making things as hard as possible for everybody, there is no longer any percentage for this country arguing for a good deal for our nearest neighbour.
Ireland’s EU Commissioner Phil Hogan, in a typically forthright and crisp presentation to the Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs during the week, summed it up neatly. Quoting EU Council president Donald Tusk, who said the UK’s choice was between “Hard Brexit and no Brexit”, Hogan added: “It’s only no Brexit that can give us the border we have now.”
Colliding with reality
Hogan also didn’t put a tooth in it, adding: “The UK is going to learn a hard lesson; it’s not going to have its cake and eat it. The posturing and fancy talk of Brexit is already beginning to collide with reality.”
That view is widely shared across Europe and it does not augur well for the kind of reasonable deal that would suit us both in terms of trade or a recognition of the special position of Northern Ireland.
That is the background against which Enda Kenny and his Ministers now have to operate and it is imperative that they build up alliances with as many other EU states as possible so we can salvage what we can from the wreckage when the Brexit process has concluded.
There does appear to be a realisation across the union that Northern Ireland does represent a special case but precisely what kind of arrangement the 27 members will agree to, in order to minimise damage to the region, is an open question.
It is made even more complicated by the fact that the Northern First Minister and Deputy First Minister have diametrically opposed views about Brexit. If they can’t agree on what they want from the negotiations it is going to be very difficult for the Irish Government to make a coherent case on their behalf.
The potential difficulties involved in negotiating the UK exit deal are illustrated by the problems that have arisen with the trade deal between the EU and Canada because the French-speaking Wallonia region of Belgium has voted against it.
That puts into perspective the potential problems of getting a Brexit deal acceptable to all 27 member states plus a variety of regions who have a veto in their countries’ federal arrangements.
Incidentally, a motion opposing the trade deal with Canada passed by the Seanad recently, because Fianna Fáil abstained inexplicably, is another signal about just how difficult it can be to sell international agreements to a public increasingly suspicious of institutions that represent authority.
Ireland is utterly dependent for its prosperity on free trade. If spurious objections can be found to a trade deal with Canada, one of the model democracies on the planet, then what hope is there for other international trade deals?
One of the big problems facing the EU is that the stream of negative propaganda and conspiracy theories coming from the populists of the right and the unreconstructed old left are helping to undermine public confidence in its viability.
Former taoiseach John Bruton has argued that those who believe in the European project need to be far more forceful in putting the facts in front of the public in order to counter the diet of unchallenged lies. The lesson is there in the way the virulent anti-EU inventions of the British press over the decades paved the way for Brexit.
The European Union is one of the greatest achievements in human history. It has delivered 70 years of peace on the continent, a level of prosperity unimaginable to earlier generations and a degree of fairness and social cohesion that exists nowhere else on the planet.
The overriding Irish national interest is in the preservation of that achievement. This country has benefited hugely from membership in both material and psychological terms and our future is with Europe regardless of what the UK decides to do.