When it comes to brass necks, Theresa May must be in the front rank. She called her snap election in the full knowledge that the EU 27 were in the process of developing negotiating guidelines in relation to the terms of Brexit. She even justified the election by reference to the “need” for her to have a strong mandate to secure “the best possible deal for Britain”. So, the timing coincidence between the working out and the adoption of the 27’s negotiating position and the British General Election is entirely of her own deliberate making.
So also was her decision to invite Jean Claude Juncker to dine with her in Downing Street. She hoped that the occasion would remain confidential but still appear to the British voter as proof that she, as Prime Minister, was already negotiating hard in Britain’s interests.
She could, had she wanted, have cancelled her dinner date with Juncker citing the election as her excuse. But she didn’t.
Looked at from a distance, her decision to call a snap election is probably best explained by her clear realisation that any deal that she could negotiate with the EU 27 was going to be viewed by the Eurosceptic Tory “bastard” wing as a sell-out of the hard-line Brexit position.
Everyone knows that UK withdrawal from the EU is an extremely complex, phased prospect and that the dismantling of the UK-EU relationship is a delicate task with many moving parts that will be extended, in its full implementation, over maybe four to seven years.
In this context, May’s allegation that the EU was seeking to influence the outcome of the UK General Election seems grotesque.
Does she think that the EU establishment would prefer to have Jeremy Corbyn in No. 10 Downing Street? Does anybody in Brussels believe that Jeremy is a wholehearted supporter of the European project? Does she really believe that the EU establishment wishes to have a weakened Theresa May-led government dependent for its survival on the votes of the hard-line Tory Brexiteers?
If truth be told, the EU establishment would probably prefer to deal with a Tory government with a comfortable majority sufficient to allow it face down its own hard-line euro-sceptics.
Of course throwing cold water on some of the most unrealistic hard-line Tory propaganda concerning the likely outcome of Brexit “affects” the conduct of the Tories’ general election campaign.
Claims that Britain will not have to make any payments in respect of ongoing EU liabilities are easy to make. But when £60bn, £80bn or £100bn are spoken about as the extent of Britain’s potential liability, the absurdity of the referendum campaign claims made by Gove and Johnston that Britain would be instantly far better off in exchequer terms by leaving the EU is completely exposed.
Like most Irish people, I strongly hope that there will be as close as possible to tariff-free trade in goods between the UK and the EU 27.
But notions that Britain can remain part of the single market and a full member of the customs union, as spoken of by many Westminster politicians, are simply deluded fantasy.
Without any wish to punish the UK for leaving, it is inconceivable that the UK would end up with all of the economic advantages of membership and none of its obligations or costs. Politicians who peddle such fantasies to the UK electorate may get away with it in the very short term due to the naivete of many potential voters but risk being completely exposed, like the Emperor in his “new clothes”, once the EU 27 adopted a common negotiating position and discussion began on the post-Brexit relationship between the UK and the EU.
Accusing Brussels of trying to influence the outcome of the election simply because Brussels clarifies its outline negotiating position is a stunt of which Donald Trump would be proud. Implicit is a suggestion that the evil Brussels bureaucracy is trying to rob ordinary English men and women of a fair electoral process. It puts Brussels and the EU in the same category as Vladimir Putin – outsiders perverting democracy by illicit means.
When Michel Barnier acknowledged the very special position of Ireland arising from the Brexit decision and acknowledged that “imaginative and flexible” solutions were available to Ireland – north and south – to minimise the damage and risk to political and economic stability on the island, he effectively challenged not merely the Irish government and its diplomats but also Irish society to formulate and justify those “flexible and imaginative” solutions for the other member states.
The Seanad has been conducting valuable hearings, through its Brexit committee, on the exact issue of solutions to the problems caused by Brexit for the island of Ireland.
Among solutions discussed there has featured the possibility of a special north-south trading relationship just as the former East Germany was once accommodated in the tariff arrangements of the EEC. Bertie Ahern has also suggested a “common trading area” in addition to the common travel area between the UK and Ireland. Others have suggested that Northern Ireland might be considered a special economic zone within the UK in the wake of Brexit.
Most usefully John McGrane of the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce suggested to the Seanad committee on Thursday that a collective engagement by the Irish government with the various economic interests, north and south, was now needed to examine and formulate viable proposals for Ireland to put on the table in response to Barnier’s challenge.
McGrane said that interested bodies – north and south – such as IBEC, the CBI in Northern Ireland, agricultural and agrifood bodies, and the main strands of economic society, presumably including the trade unions, should now collaborate to examine and tease out all viable options that might fall within Michel Barnier’s challenging invitation. For instance, He suggested that instead of the Irish government retaining one solicitor’s firm to advise on legal issues implicit in such options that all the large solicitors firms and legal experts should voluntarily collaborate in support of this engagement.
Given that the wellbeing of the entire island and all of its people is put in issue and seriously imperilled by Brexit, what is needed now is pragmatic and wholehearted commitment by such a “coalition of the willing” on this island – regardless of views on ultimate constitutional questions – to put the interests of Ireland and its people first.
Let’s do it.